Health & Medicine

China competes in stem cell research

This story is a part of

Human Needs

This story is a part of

Human Needs

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(Image by Flickr user Robert Scoble (cc:by))

This story was originally covered by PRI's The World. For more, listen to the audio above.

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Scientists were impressed, recently, when researchers in China grew a new mouse from the skin cell of an adult mouse. The team, from the State Key Laboratory of Reproductive Biology in Beijing, accomplished this feat by converting the skin cell into a fully-functioning stem cell. The research took science one step closer to the goal of using stem cells to create replacement body parts and tissues to cure diseases and treat injuries. Tong Man, a graduate student working on the project, described her reaction:

We just, 'Wow, wow,' you know? That's the first one all around the world. During that time we know that there is no one, there is nobody could make this mouse.

But just across town, at the National Institute of Biological Sciences, another team accomplished nearly the same feat -- creating a mouse from a skin cell -- and published their findings on exactly the same day.

Accomplishments like these, by two separate research teams simultaneously, are changing the view of scientific research from China. For years, the vast majority of research on stem cells has been from Europe and the United States. The field has also attracted controversy, because stem cells have to be harvested from embryos. Scientists throughout the world have been scrambling to sidestep the ethical controversy, and China seems to be making strong headway.

"Chinese researchers are gaining traction in this field," Dominique McMahon is a global health researcher at the University of Toronto told PRI's The World. "Their publication numbers have gone way up, and they certainly have made some important discoveries in the field."

One reason why China has found success is because it's been able to attract talented researchers back to China after studying abroad. Professor Zhou Qi, of State Key Laboratory of Reproductive Biology, told The World: "Now many, many people go back to China to work because the funding, the collaboration really become better than before."

The country is also investing in entirely homegrown research, McMahon wrote for Science Progress. According McMahon, China has found success in a "four-pronged approach to building up regenerative medicine, combining a powerful recruitment strategy for researchers, ample funding, permissive regulations, and a focus on rapidly deriving applications."

Those permissive regulations are still a problem for many international researchers. In the past, China performed stem-cell research in poorly regulated clinics. McMahon told The World, "a lot of the researchers that I've spoken to in the West think these Chinese researchers are just injecting patients with stem cells, and not going through traditional scientific rigorous techniques. But that's just not true."

What is true is that the United States should keep a close eye on stem-cell research in China, McMahon writes. The United States should also consider engaging China on stem cell science and regulations.

"It is time to start taking China seriously," McMahon writes. "China's progress in regenerative medicine has gone largely unnoticed because of the Western media's focus on stem cell tourism, but this progress is a source of national pride and shows no signs of slowing."

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More "The World."