Canadian biologist Yaacov Ben-David and his Guizhou team are isolating TCM components for cancer research, reports.
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“I saw how I could make a difference here. I am a biologist and they have chemists. They extract compounds from TCM and there has to be somebody to understand their functions. That is my expertise.”
Canadian biologist, Key Laboratory of Chemistry for Natural Products in Guiyang
Since Canadian biologist Yaacov Ben-David put down roots in Southwest China’s Guizhou province, he has been driven by a desire to understand how traditional Chinese medicine works.
Ben-David, 61, was born in Iran and received his PhD in molecular immunology from Hebrew University in Israel, in 1987.
He worked for the University of Toronto for more than 20 years since t he early 1990s and also served as a senior scientist at the Sunnybrook Research Institute in the Canadian city for years.
“If we find out what are the active compounds that actually help in TCM, then we have already translated it (the result) and the entire world will benefit,” says BenDavid.
He is now the director of a tumor pharmacology research unit at Guizhou’s Key Laboratory of Chemistry for Natural Products, an affiliate of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The Sunnybrook Research Institute in Canada, where he worked earlier, has successfully identified oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes that have mutated in various forms of cancers.
In recent years, Ben-David turned his attention to studying the development of compounds and drugs that can be used to fight cancer
He saw opportunities for breakthrough research i n Guizhou when he first visited the laboratory in provincial capital Guiyang for lectures in 2013.
“I saw how I could make a difference here,” says BenDavid of his decision to work in Guiyang.
“I am a biologist and they have chemists. They extract compounds from TCM and there has to be somebody to understand their functions. That is my expertise.”
The province has suitable soil and air for the growth of herbs for TCM. The region is home to many ethnic groups, such as the Miao people who have used TCM for long.
Since 2013, Guizhou has invested about 200 million yuan ($29.4 million) annually to support the TCM industry
Foreign professionals like Ben-David are also being sought by the province as it looks to drive research and innovation.
Few studies have been done on natural compounds extracted from TCM while many compounds used i n Western medicine have already been analyzed.
“Here I have access to everything new and locally sourced,” he says, adding that Chinese scientist Tu Youyou, who won last year’s Nobel Prize in medicine for her research on an antimalarial substance, is an inspiration for him.
Although ancient, TCM is still not widely accepted globally because not many studies have been done on it.
He hopes to change the situation with his work, he says.
“Chemists can modify and develop TCM to make it better if we .know how it works.”
In 2014, the Guizhou laboratory’s program was included in the One Thousand Foreign Experts project, which was initiated by the central government in 2011 to invite foreign specialists to the country over a decade or so. The project provides grants to qualified candidates.
In this case, the laboratory has been given more than 10 million yuan to facilitate drug research by both the central and provincial governments.
Despite such support, Ben-David has had to deal with challenges, i ncluding building the laboratory from scratch and language barriers at the beginning, he says.
It’s difficult to find enough local talent, because people usually prefer working i n bigger cities like Beijing and Shanghai. .
He has lost more than 10 trained technicians in the past two years, he says.
But Ben-David is glad that he has built an internationallevel laboratory, which has seen visits by high-level officials, including the Minister of Science and Technology, Wang Gang, earlier this year.
Now, Ben-David’s team has about 15 chemists, whose work includes isolating components in TCM.
The laboratory has identified some TCM components that might be used for the treatment of leukemia and other kinds of cancer, and a few relevant drugs are i n pre-clinical development, he says.
In addition to drug discovery, Ben-David’s team is also engaged in uncovering the molecular mechanism of cancer progression.
In collaboration with local scientists, they are working on understanding the molecular cause of diseases specific to the province.
Ben-David has also taken advantage of his wide network of contacts to help Guizhou enhance its international exchanges, including bringing top scientists for conferences.
Ben-David, who lives i n Guiyang, says he enjoys life in the city despite the distance between the laboratory and the city center.
Having completed his first three years at the laboratory, Ben-David has just renewed his contract for another three.
Ben-David, who has married Yao Shaojuan, a local woman, is learning Chinese and says he plans to stay in China for a long time.
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Yaacov Ben-David and his research team in Guiyang. The biologist says he’s glad to have built an international-level laboratory.
Training local talent is one of Ben-David’s biggest tasks here.