The fam­ily must wait — there is a bird flu war to win

China Daily (Canada) - - PEOPLE - In Paris

tuoy­an­nan@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Chen Hualan works on the front line of the fight against killer viruses.

Be­hind the grace­ful de­meanor of this award-win­ning sci­en­tist is some­one who is rec­og­nized as one of the fiercest war­riors in the lab­o­ra­tory.

“Fight­ing with a virus is a bat­tle,” said Chen, 47. “You have to deeply know it and un­der­stand it in or­der to con­quer it.”

Chen, a pro­fes­sor at the Harbin Ve­teri­nary Re­search In­sti­tute in north­east­ern China, had some high­pro­file vic­to­ries.

In 2013, af­ter the out­break of H7N9, a deadly strain of avian flu, her team col­lected more than 1,000 sam­ples from mar­kets, wa­ter sources and poul­try farms around Shang­hai. The data not only proved the virus could spread from an­i­mals and birds to hu­mans, but was also used to cre­ate a vac­cine that has pre­vented count­less in­fec­tions world­wide.

In March Chen was among the five win­ners of L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Sci­ence Award this year for “her out­stand­ing re­search into the bi­ol­ogy of the flu virus, lead­ing to the de­vel­op­ment and use of an ef­fec­tive vac­cine”.

The award is given to the world’s most in­flu­en­tial fe­male sci­en­tists and car­ries with it a $100,000 grant for each lau­re­ate. Since 1998 it has hon­ored 5 women ev­ery year, with two go­ing on to win a No­bel Prize.

“Get­ting this award means my con­tri­bu­tion to sci­ence has been rec­og­nized at a higher level. It means a lot,” Chen told China Cen­tral Tele­vi­sion, the state broad­caster, shortly af­ter ac­cept­ing her prize at a cer­e­mony in Paris.

Ear­lier, she was also named among the “top 10 sci­en­tists who mat­ter” by Na­ture mag­a­zine for her cut­tingedge re­search in an­i­mal vi­rol­ogy.

How­ever, Chen said her work is far from over.

“Viruses keep chang­ing,” she ex­plained. “If you de­velop a vac­cine to fight against a virus you see now, when you use that vac­cine the virus could very well have al­ready changed. This re­quires us to keep a close eye on viruses (in na­ture) to un­der­stand them.

“We re­ally want to un­der­stand what is go­ing on; for ex­am­ple, what kind of birds can be in­fected by which virus. Then we need very de­tailed bi­o­log­i­cal anal­y­sis to un­der­stand the risk of a virus. Af­ter that, we will try to de­velop vac­cines. That’s the se­quence we are work­ing on in the lab.”

Her re­search team has now es­tab­lished a “com­plete bird flu vac­cine de­vel­op­ment plat­form” that will make it eas­ier to con­trol any new strains, she said.

Chen, who heads China’s Na­tional Avian Ref­er­ence Lab­o­ra­tory, is also known for her ex­per­i­ments to en­gi­neer hy­brid flu viruses, such as by mix­ing genes from the H5N1 and H1N1 strains to prove that mu­ta­tions can spread through the air between guinea pigs. This work demon­strated the threats posed by emerg­ing strains and led to her devel­op­ing two new vac­cines to pre­vent po­ten­tial epi­demics.

Since 2004, about 140 bil­lion doses of flu vac­cine have been given to poul­try in China, as well as sev­eral other coun­tries, she said.

“We’ve pro­vided a lot of sup­port to other coun­tries,” she said, re­call­ing that she once sent re­searchers to Viet­nam for six months to help health au­thor­i­ties there com­bat a flu out­break. “My sci­ence is driven by re­spon­si­bil­ity. I hope my re­search can be a con­tri­bu­tion to the world.”

El­iz­a­beth Black­burn, joint win­ner of the 2009 No­bel Prize in phys­i­ol­ogy or medicine and head of this year’s For Women in Sci­ence Award jury, said Chen’s achieve­ments are an ex­am­ple of “sci­ence with the great­est qual­ity and great­est im­por­tance” be­cause “her re­search pre­vents epi­demics”.

Jean-Paul Agon, CEO of L’Oreal, also spoke highly of Chen and her peers at the award cer­e­mony in March. “Chi­nese sci­en­tists are among the best sci­en­tists in the world,” he said.

“The work her (Chen’s) team has been do­ing is amaz­ing. I am sure that, year af­ter year, China will be ab­so­lutely at the cen­ter of sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies.”

Af­ter such plau­dits, it is strange to hear Chen say she was orig­i­nally hes­i­tant to en­ter the field of ve­teri­nary medicine — largely be­cause a neigh­bor in her child­hood home in the north­west­ern prov­ince of Gansu had told her “a vet­eri­nar­ian’s main job is to cas­trate an­i­mals”.

How­ever, she said she forged ahead af­ter en­cour­age­ment from her mother.

“She said to me, ‘Fate calls upon us all; if your des­tiny is to be a vet, then you go and do it.’ I re­ally ap­pre­ci­ated my mother’s en­cour­age­ment. I do not think I would be who I am to­day with­out her.”

Af­ter leav­ing ve­teri­nary col­lege, Chen went on to gain a mas­ter’s at Gansu Agri­cul­tural Univer­sity and re­ceived her PhD from the Chi­nese Acad­emy of Agri­cul­tural Sci­ences.

Out­side the lab­o­ra­tory, she is also a wife and mother of a son, al­though her time at home is lim­ited. The last fam­ily va­ca­tion they took was six years ago, she said.

“When they went out sight­see­ing, I locked my­self in the hotel room to pre­pare a re­search pa­per,” she said, laugh­ing.

“I love na­tional hol­i­days — not be­cause I want to go out for travel, but be­cause I can lock my­self at home to write with­out in­ter­rup­tion.”

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Chen Hualan

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