SARANAC LAKE - Tuberculosis researchers at Trudeau Institute are partnering with an infectious disease hospital and research center in China in an attempt to see how their laboratory studies could help people afflicted with TB, not just mice.
It's the kind of "translational" - that is, applying basic science to enhance human health - research partnership that Trudeau officials hope could break new scientific ground while also potentially opening up a new funding stream for the institute, as money from some of its more traditional revenue sources has been harder to come by.
On Monday, Trudeau scientist Andrea Cooper returned from a 10-day trip to China, where she visited the Shenzhen Third People's Hospital, home to the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Institute of Infectious Disease. She sat down with the Enterprise on Thursday to talk about her trip and what the prospects of the partnership could mean for Trudeau and tuberculosis research in general.
Trudeau Institute scientist Andrea Cooper, right, stands with Prof. Xinchun Chen outside the research wing of the Third People’s Hospital in Shenzhen, China last week.
"People are looking for more relevant research, something that has high impact, high significance," Cooper said. "What I've been doing in the past has been very focused on tuberculosis, but it's been in a model system. While that's very useful for finding out detailed information about how things work, it's not immediately translatable to the human disease. So in order to have the support of people, and people means money, and also to make my work relevant to the human disease, I need to see whether the things I'm seeing in our model system are relevant to the human system."
One problem with doing such human research in the U.S. is that there aren't so many TB patients here anymore. And while there are plenty of countries around the world where tuberculosis continues to be a problem, particularly developing nations, Cooper said the ideal location also needs to have state-of-the art research facilities. There are only a few countries where that's the case, she said, naming South Africa, South Korea and China.
The partnership with Chinese scientists came about after Cooper met Prof. Xinchun Chen of the Third People's Hospital in Shenzhen, a young and fast-growing city in southern China, just north of Hong Kong. The hospital is the tertiary care center for infectious disease for a population of 14 million people. Much of its work has involved research in influenza and liver disease as well as tuberculosis.
"Professor Chen came up to me a couple times and said he was interested in collaborating," Cooper said. "So we got to sitting down and chatting, and it seemed to me that he was a person who understood the disease in a real sense. He said the focus of the hospital is to care for people with infectious disease but also have the facilities to investigate the mechanisms of the disease."
Cooper was interested, so she decided to visit Shenzhen for herself to see if these were the kind of scientists her team could work with and trust. She spent most of last week in Shenzhen touring the hospital's facilities, meeting with Chen and his research team, and talking about their work. She said much of the tuberculosis research Chen's scientists are interested in is similar to what her team has been studying.
"It's the nature of the molecules that are involved in the kind of damage caused in tissue during the disease," Cooper said. "We've looked at that in our model system, and he's looked at it in humans. They've identified markers that are associated with more serous disease and less serious disease, so that fits in with what we've seen as well."
Moving forward, Cooper plans to send a member of her team, post-doctoral scientist Egidio Torrado, to Shenzhen to begin working with Chen's researchers. She said scientists from China also want to visit Trudeau sometime in the spring and spend three to six months here getting trained in the kinds of techniques used in Cooper's lab.
"This is part of the strategic plan of the institute going forward," Cooper said. "What we're very good at is training people. We can train them to make definitive outcomes to their experiments. It's an integrated collaboration where we can investigate our interests and they can investigate their interests. They're excited to be working with us, and we're excited to be working with them."
One key benefit for the Chinese researchers, Cooper added, is their work is better received if they're partnering with American colleagues and publishing in American journals, which could also generate more financial support for their work.
Funding priorities for research here in the U.S., particularly within the National Institutes of Health, which has been Trudeau's biggest source of research revenue in recent years, have been shifting toward just this kind of translational research. This summer, Trudeau scientist Laura Haynes won a $9 million translational research award over five years to study how aging impacts the immune system's response to influenza infection and vaccination.
Money aside, however, Cooper said the bigger issue is winning the fight against tuberculosis. The estimated number of people worldwide contracting TB has been declining each year, according to the World Health Organization, but in 2010 the disease still claimed more than 1.5 million lives, primarily in low- and middle-income countries.
"The things that we're missing in order to make tuberculosis a disease that's eliminated is short-course drug treatment, and we need to improve our vaccination," Cooper said. "Both of those require understanding the disease in the clinical sense and at the mechanistic level. We can do the mechanism here at Trudeau, and then we can do the clinical work in China. The trouble is those two things often don't come together, and that's what we want to do. We want to bring them together so we can make the kind of inroads that we need to make."
Cooper has been at Trudeau since January 2002. She has six other people in her research lab. They include her husband, John Pearl, along with Jeffrey Fountain, Lynn Ryan, Torrado, Aurelie Ray and Bill Reiley.
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.