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Last Updated: Friday, 21 July 2006, 13:52 GMT 14:52 UK
China's race for 'frontier' science
By Carrie Gracie
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Science and technology have recently been made a priority by the Chinese government which expects that the industries will soon account for most of the country's economic growth. Heavy investment has already made China a leader in areas such as stem cell research.

Chinese scientists
The Chinese government is encouraging innovation in science
"We must embrace greatness and forsake trivialness, enrich ourselves with virtues, unravel the mysteries of life, create long lasting success."

This is just part of the mission statement for six-year-old biotech start-up Capitalbio.

At 43 years old, Cheng Jing may be on the young side for a chief executive, but he has already mastered the long view.

"Genes don't change in history. Some of the greatest inventions in world, such as gunpowder and paper came from China. If our ancestors have genes in their bodies for great inventions I don't see why we cannot inherit from them.

"Temporarily, China slowed down but we can pick up very quickly, then the whole world will see. And you'll get not just something made in China but created in China."

Cheng Jing started as an electrical engineer, switched to do a PhD in forensic biology at Strathclyde University and then moved to the US and put both disciplines together, miniaturising systems for diagnostic testing on "biochips".

When the head-hunters from China's top science university were scouring American campuses for the brightest brains to bring home, he was an obvious candidate. Now he doubles as full-time professor and chief executive of the university's flagship biotech company, pioneering diagnostic tools so tiny they are called labs on a chip.

'Driving innovation'

It's no longer just about instilling knowledge and memorising facts, but encouraging free thinking
Business development manager David Sun
Trim 43 year olds in button-down blue shirts and loafers on either side of a table tennis net, Cheng Jing and his business development manager David Sun both look as if they dropped in from California.

The company gym looks out onto a landscaped world of lakes and lawns in Beijing's new life sciences park.

Cheng Jing's task is to put this place on the world map.

His backers in the university and the government are betting on Capitalbio becoming the next Pfizer or Merck.

Cheng Jing says: "Ten years down the road, if nothing goes wrong, you will see Capitalbio in the US, Japan, the UK. This is a promise, not a threat."

From the other side of the net, his business development manager, David Sun, agrees. He says China's climate for life sciences has been transformed in the past five or six years.

"The government's encouraging innovation, encouraging people to come up with cutting edge technologies instead of copying. And the education system is changing, becoming closer to that of the Western world.

"It's no longer just about instilling knowledge and memorising facts, but encouraging free thinking. There's also the influx of talents returning from the West, with technical, industrial, and managerial skills to help drive innovation.

It is his job to get Capitalbio in a position to list on the American technology exchange, the Nasdaq. The numbers are moving in the right direction.

David Sun says: "If I had a crystal ball, I would say we want to build a company that's comparable to the biggest and most successful in US or Europe.

"We've been growing 200% to 300% a year. This year's target is 300%. And we don't anticipate this to dramatically slow down. "

Science is a top priority for China's leaders.

They expect it to generate a staggering 60% of economic growth by 2020.

The life sciences are a particular obsession. It is such a new field that an ambitious developing power like China sees an opportunity to catch up.

Having sent a generation of its brightest young scientists to North America and Europe in the mid-1980s, it is now bringing them home to realise that dream.

Stem cells

A newborn baby
In China, some babies have their umbilical cord saved in blood banks
Just down the motorway from Capitalbio, in the port city of Tianjin, I met another returnee with a firm sense of purpose.

At China's National Research Centre of Stem Cell Engineering, scientists broke the backs of adult rats and injected umbilical stem cells into the injury site. The improvements in movement were impressive.

The director of the research centre, Professor Han Zhong Chao, says: "We are the first in the world to use the umbilical cord blood stem cells to treat spinal cord injuries. We have excellent results; our results have been published in the international journals."

Professor Han is now waiting for approval to try the treatment on humans paralysed by spinal injuries.

He says: "We want to test this technology in around 300 patients; we believe that cord blood stem cells could be effective for humans."

Right next door to Professor Han's gleaming cord bank and his research centre, the builders are putting the finishing touches to his new stem cell hospital.

Professor Han believes stem cells are the future for medicine; that because of their ability to turn into many different cell types, they will make it possible for him to repair and replace damaged tissue, even whole organs eventually.

Fraud worry

Bioethics in China is a new field. Even the regulations governing cloning are less than three-years-old
With Tianjin, one of China's largest cities on his doorstep, there is no shortage of candidates for clinical trials.

But building a life sciences superpower is a task more complex than any laboratory experiment.

South Korea's scandal over a world-class cloning pioneer who falsified his research data has demonstrated the dangers of political and financial pressures in a science culture which is not fully mature.

Bioethics in China is a new field. Even the regulations governing cloning are less than three years old.

Science journalist Jia Hepeng has concerns about their implementation.

He says: "In my five years of reporting life sciences in China I haven't seen anyone punished. I think that means maybe punitive matters are not well implemented."

Common practice does not encourage high ethical standards [and] people aren't trained in this
Science journalist Jia Hepeng
In China, there are few of the inhibitions which make animal experimentation, embryonic stem cells, or human trials for new drugs so controversial as in North America or Europe.

Even in scientific circles discussion is limited. Combine that with a climate in which the rewards for success are enormous, and Jia Hepeng is uneasy that corners may be cut.

Jia Hepeng continues: "Chinese scientists are not people of low moral standards. The problem is habit.

"Common practice does not encourage high ethical standards [and] people aren't trained in this. I can't say everyone is falsifying data, but a lot of scientists don't care about procedure. This culture is not well formed in China."

In the scramble for results, there may well be some gambles and shortcuts, some frauds even.

But five years ago there were no biotech companies with the Nasdaq in their sights and no field of life sciences in which China dominated.

When all is said and done, it seems clear to me that China has now planted its flag on one of this century's most exciting frontiers for science. And who knows what that will mean for any of us in the future.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents will be broadcast on Thursday, 20 July 2006, at 1102 BST.

The programme will be repeated on Monday, 24 July at 2030 BST.

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China's scientific ambitions
12 Jul 06 |  Crossing Continents
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