Med­i­cal quest

Cana­dian bi­ol­o­gist Yaa­cov Ben-David and his Guizhou team are iso­lat­ing TCM com­po­nents for can­cer re­search, re­ports.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE -

na to look for ac­tive

“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.

Con­tact the writer at li­ux­i­an­grui@chi­nadaily.com.cn

lower risk of dy­ing from stroke for op­ti­mistic women, ac­cord­ing to a US study on how optimism may af­fect mor­tal­ity risk.

“Our new find­ings sug­gest that we should make ef­forts to boost optimism, which has been shown to be as­so­ci­ated with health­ier be­hav­iors and health­ier ways of cop­ing with life chal­lenges.”

The study also found that healthy be­hav­iors only par­tially ex­plain the link be­tween optimism and re­duced mor­tal­ity risk.

One other pos­si­bil­ity is that higher optimism di­rectly im­pacts our bi­o­log­i­cal sys­tems, Kim says.

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Yaa­cov Ben-David and his re­search team in Guiyang. The bi­ol­o­gist says he’s glad to have built an in­ter­na­tional-level lab­o­ra­tory.

Yaa­cov Ben-David,

Train­ing lo­cal tal­ent is one of Ben-David’s big­gest tasks here.

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