Scripps Scientist Cultivates U.S.-China Research Collaborations in Marine Biotechnology


A casual dinner conversation at a scientific conference in Strömstad, Sweden two-and-a-half years ago about the astonishingly sparse interactions between scientists in the U.S. and China in the fields of marine biotechnology and marine natural products has evolved into a new collaborative initiative with growing momentum.

Driven by his personal quest for global connectivity in science, Bill Gerwick, a distinguished professor of oceanography and pharmaceutical sciences at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and UC San Diego’s Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, recently co-led two high-level symposia in China that he hopes will spur a new era in international marine biosciences.

The timing of the symposia comes at a critical juncture in the world’s search for new sources of cures to modern illnesses. With drug resistance on the rise and terrestrial sources virtually exhausted, the oceans represent a vast, largely untapped resource for new drugs to treat diseases, from cancer to anthrax to dengue fever.

While funding for science has remained flat or declined in the United States, scientists in China are experiencing a renaissance of world-class research and education, and an explosion of new funding support.

“Sadly, we scientists in the west know relatively little of this scientific revival in China, and there are antiquated and incorrect perceptions that Chinese science is somehow less rigorous or precise than that performed elsewhere,” said Gerwick, who is based at the Scripps Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine. “There are many reasons for this but they generally stem from the relatively little meaningful contact we have with each other.”

With this void in mind, and his lab’s track record of forging substantial collaborations around the world—from Panama to Italy—Gerwick and his Chinese counterpart, Professor Wen Zhang of the Second Military Medical University in Shanghai, decided to do something about it at their 2011 dinner meeting. They decided to launch a collaborative program in which scientists would not only exchange new ideas on marine biotechnology and natural products research, but, far more importantly, they would forge personal relationships.

“It’s a longstanding personal ambition of mine to use science in ways that go beyond actual science and to engage in science diplomacy,” said Gerwick. “That’s just part of my makeup.”

Held between August 16 and 28 this year, the First U.S.-China Summit in Marine Natural Product Sciences was held in the coastal city of Yantai, while the First U.S.-China Symposium for Marine Biopharmaceutical Research and Industry was based at Ningbo University and hosted by its Dean of Marine Sciences Xiaojun Yan. Topics for the meetings covered the search for new pharmaceuticals from the sea, novel methods of detection and isolation of bioactive compounds, and meeting the supply needs of natural products through advanced chemical synthesis, biosynthesis, and fermentation.

But unlike typical scientific conferences with isolated presentations, the U.S.-China Summit and Symposia pushed researchers to interact with their counterparts.

Gerwick and Zhang’s plan appears to have worked, as several new research collaborations were generated and a second U.S.-China summit is already in the works, tentatively planned at Scripps in August 2016.

“I really didn’t know what to expect since this was my first time in China,” said Chambers Hughes, an assistant professor of chemical biology at Scripps CMBB, who was joined by Lena Gerwick and Ted Molinski as part of the Scripps/UC San Diego team that participated. “I was surprised to see so many scientists from China with a common interest in marine natural products. The presentations from both American and Chinese scientists were first-rate, and the symposia provided a solid foundation for collaborative research in the future.”

Hughes said he established one collaborative project and he is already looking forward to the next summit at Scripps.

“A vision was created from these meetings that while the Pacific Ocean may separate our two countries, the study of that very same body of water and its unique life forms can serve as the inspiration to bring us together,” said Gerwick. “We’d like to maintain these relationships into the future and grow them. We hope to develop a number of joint research projects that are funded from Chinese sources, from U.S. sources, and from other sources that fund international grants. And maybe we can commercialize some products and sell some things that are needed in the world and make some money at the same time.”

— Mario C. Aguilera

Related Image Gallery: New U.S.-China Marine Biotech Collaborations

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