By Mike Foster
The ten-year collaboration between the University of Ottawa and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has produced many benefits.
From finding new ways of using proteins to help unlock the inner workings of diabetes, Alzheimer’s and inflammatory bowel diseases, to using femtosecond lasers to observe molecules and study chemical reactions as they happen, this partnership is leading to a multitude of advances in pure science.
Small wonder then that the decade of collaboration was celebrated last month. At a special convocation ceremony held on September 21, CAS president Chunli Bai was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Ottawa. On the same day, four important agreements for further uOttawa-CAS collaboration were signed.
The partnership began in 2005 as an elaborate plan for research collaboration and academic exchange in reproductive health between uOttawa professor Ben Tsang and his CAS counterpart, Professor Duan Enkui, director of the State Key Laboratory of Reproductive Biology. Over the past ten years, these joint efforts have blossomed into a range of productive partnerships, including faculty exchanges, joint publication of research papers, as well as larger, multi-faceted projects.
The CAS has a budget of around $8B U.S. and operates 85% of the large-scale science facilities in China; it is truly a powerhouse of scientific knowledge and innovation in fields ranging from particle physics to astronomy, nuclear fusion and oceanography. It ranks sixth in the world in terms of the number of primary research papers in Nature or Nature-sponsored monthly research journals, according to the Nature Publishing Index – 2013 Global Top 200.
Using proteins to decipher diseases
Daniel Figeys, a uOttawa professor and Canada Research Chair in Proteomics and Systems Biology, has helped to establish two joint laboratories with the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics (DICP) and the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica (SIMM), both of which are under the CAS umbrella.
Working with fellow scientists at the DICP, Figeys gained access to processes that use new surface chemistry to purify proteins, and technologies that measure protein levels in biological samples. He and his Chinese counterparts have published nearly 20 joint research papers in the field of systems biology and proteomics.
“These technologies are being applied to projects here at uOttawa. Over the past few years, these technologies were applied to look at what is going on in the brain during circadian cycles – how your body clock works. They have been applied to look at changes in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients and, more recently, to look at inflammatory bowel disease in children,” says Figeys.
"These technologies allow us to ask new questions about proteins and how they are regulated in relation to those diseases,” says Figeys, adding that this would have been extremely difficult to achieve without the DICP and CAS.
In addition to his work with the DICP, Figeys proposed a joint lab with the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica (SIMM) in 2009, a partnership that was launched in 2012 as the SIMM-uOttawa joint laboratory in translational OMICS, or SIMMUOMICS laboratory.
One of the four agreements reached last month was to upgrade the laboratory into a joint research center, to be known as the SIMMUOMICS research center. Although the exact details are yet to be finalized, Figeys says the agreement is certain to take things to the “next level.”
“Essentially, what both institutions are saying is that this type of laboratory is working well and we want to extend it so more people are involved. With more projects, it can have a larger impact on medicine."
He says the SIMM is like a “virtual drug company” within CAS. It has many compounds derived from traditional Chinese medicine and modern medicine, which the SIMMUOMICS research centre will explore in a bid to find new remedies.
“We can use the OMICS technologies to study how the drugs work and how they then impact disease and whether there can be improvements down the line; that’s what we have been working on over the past few years,” says Figeys. “We can ask much more specific questions of a drug.”
“In terms of some of the activity we are doing, it would be very difficult to maintain without the Chinese Academy of Sciences. We have had a lot of exchanges of scientists and students with them, which really has helped in terms of the program we have in proteomics. From a science point of view, and a human point of view, it’s been a very worthwhile,” says Figeys.
Observing chemical reactions in real time
Meanwhile, in a completely different field, Professor Albert Stolow, Canada Research Chair in Molecular Photonics, has worked with scientists at the DICP, since part of his research focuses on femtosecond time-resolved photoelectron spectroscopy.
“With these femtosecond lasers, we can make flashes of light that are so short we can actually strobe molecules as they are undergoing chemical reactions,” says Stolow.
In 2009, he published a joint paper in Science, the world’s top scientific journal, on time-resolved molecular frame dynamics of fixed in space CS2, with a colleague, Guorong Wu, who had done his PhD under the supervision of DICP professor Xueming Yang. Wu came to study at uOttawa as an NRC (National Research Council) and NSERC-funded post-doctoral student, and is now an associate professor at the DICP.
“We are still writing papers together. He is now an employee of CAS, with the DICP, and is still working with uOttawa,” says Stolow, adding that the research is beginning to understand the dynamics of how electrons, atoms and molecules rapidly rearrange themselves during chemical reactions.
In a completely separate project, Stolow is also writing joint papers with associate professor Yanmei Wang, who spent six months in Ottawa funded by the Chinese Young Scholar Visiting Program.
In future, this research could lead to even more powerful computers and a better understanding of the dynamics behind photosynthesis and vision, said Stolow.
“We often look to biology to see how to do things,” he added. “If we want to make a solar cell that efficiently converts light into energy, the most effective solar cells the planet has ever seen are the green plants outside your door. They have a much higher efficiency than anything that has ever been built. But we don’t fully understand how they work. One of the reasons we don’t understand is that we can’t see how the various small parts move, often much too quickly for the eye, in order to achieve a result.”
Understanding fish biology to feed millions
Another collaboration likely to bear fruit – and fish – involves the work of uOttawa biology professor Vance Trudeau and Professor Wei Hu, at the CAS-supported Institute of Hydrobiology (IHB) in Wuhan, China.
The IHB approached uOttawa and Trudeau for their expertise in the hormones that control fish reproduction and growth in order to improve the production of fish for food. Since 2011, the partners have been involved in the study of secretoneurin, a brain hormone which they believe is essential for reproduction.
The aim of the collaboration is to better control fish production and produce fish that grow faster but do not reproduce at all, to prevent them from mixing with wild fish. The IHB is also interested in uOttawa’s world-class research on the effects of pollutants on the aquatic environment, and especially, their potentially harmful effects on fish.
Last month, CAS and uOttawa signed a formal agreement to establish a co-funded joint research centre, the IHB-uOttawa Joint Research Centre on Fish Physiology and Developmental Biology. It will build upon existing links and research, possibly leading to students earning dual degrees from CAS and uOttawa.
Two other formal agreements signed last month will see the CAS-uOttawa relationship blossom:
The CAS Centre for Innovation and Development (CASCID) will encourage multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional collaboration, and work to influence science policy in both China and Canada.
The partnership builds upon past exchanges with uOttawa’s Institute for Sciences, Society and Policy (ISSP).
“Given CAS’s role and weight in science and technology policy-making in China, our ISSP will be ideally positioned to stay on top of the country’s fast-changing policy environment,” according to ISSP associate director, technology innovation, Jonathan Linton.
And an agreement between University of Chinese Academy of Sciences (UCAS) and uOttawa’s Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (FGPS) will contribute strategically to all CAS-uOttawa activities and will include financial support for Chinese PhD students to spend a year at uOttawa.
Honouring Chunli Bai
CAS president Chunli Bai is an eminent chemist who has made ground-breaking discoveries on single molecule, molecular nanostructure and self-assembly, molecular nano-devices and novel nanomaterials.
A professor of chemistry at CAS, and its president since 2011, Dr. Bai has published more than 350 articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals and has won more than 20 prestigious awards and prizes for his academic achievements.
Dr. Bai is a pioneer in the field of scanning probe microscopy, nanoscience and nanotechnology. In the mid-1980s, he designed and developed China’s first atomic force microscope (AFM), scanning tunneling microscope (STM) and ballistic electron emission microscopy (BEEM), among other technologies. His research led to the first tools in China to manipulate single atoms and molecules, and he has investigated the conductance of molecules such as DNA and optical/electronic molecules.
Dr. Bai graduated from Peking University’s department of chemistry in 1978 and received his Master’s and PhD from the CAS Institute of Chemistry in 1981 and 1985, respectively, before pursuing post-doctoral studies at Caltech from 1985 to 1987.
Daniel Figeys, a uOttawa professor and Canada Research Chair in Proteomics and Systems Biology, in his laboratory. Photo: Peter Thornton.