The Godfather of Stem Cell Research: Dr. Xiaodi Han

How did you get into the stem cell research field? For my Ph.D., I did tumor research. I had already done a lot of clinical work, and saw that after surgery, many patients develop neurological complications from which they never recover – especially from benign tumors, which still cause damage. So I wanted to see if I could do something to prevent that damage. Since the 1980s, doctors have been using tissue from other parts of the body to repair brain tissue. After 2000, researchers started publishing a lot of papers on stem cell research, so we tried to apply it to the brain.


I started doing this type of research in Australia. In 2003, I joined a team at the Department of Neurosurgery at The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, and we worked first on providing medicines that would prevent neurological damage after surgery. We then had to decide: If we couldn’t prevent all that damager, what would we do next? That’s where stem cells came in. So I ended up doing a lot of work specifically in that area, and found that stem cell research is very similar to tumor research. For example, tumor markers are very similar to stem cell markers.

Why did you decide to come back to China and continue this work? China provides a lot of opportuni¬ties in medical research, especially clinical research. There are many government foundations here that support such research. Since the stem cell industry’s inception here, these funds have increased their funding, so that it now numbers into the billions, in terms of RMB. We also have the most hospitals and the most patients in the world, so we’re trying to do something to help those people.

How do scientists go about developing a new stem cell line? Because we’re in the neuroscientific field, we use brain cells in all of our work in repairing damage, such as brain trauma, spinal cord injuries, or neuro-degenerative diseases. So we just focus on neurostem cells. We don’t deal with embryonic stem cells. We prefer using neurostem cells, because you can control the direc¬tion they grow in. They only become adult brain cells; they never become tumors. It’s much safer this way.

So most stem cell research does not involve embryonic stem cells? It’s much safer to use adult stem cells. Anywhere in your body, you can find such stem cells. Even skin cells or fat cells, they contain all of your body’s informa¬tion, so you can turn them into stem cells. We have discovered so much about stem cells here, mainly because of the One-Child Policy. Because of the One-Child Policy, we have many tissue sources to derive stem cells from. Not many other countries have this kind of advantage, and therefore can’t do as much.

Why has stem cell research not taken off in countries like the United States as it has in China? Actually, there are many clinical trials occurring in the United States, and the results have been published. There is one study in 2005 from Texas for children who suffer from neurotrauma. These children were treated with stem cells derived from bone marrow. So even though there is contro¬versy in the United States with stem cell research, a lot is being done anyway.

In terms of research safety, people are much more careful there. There have also been lots of clinical stem cell trials in California, and in this way, researchers have found a cure for Batten disease. People who suffer from neurotrauma and neurological diseases have also led the charge. Christopher Reeve started a foundation that funds stem cell research into repairing damage from spinal cord inju¬ries. There is also a lot of exciting research being done in other Western countries. Furthermore, there are many American compa¬nies who operate stem cell clinics, but in other countries, like Mexico. There has been so much research in this area that scientists have laid a very good foundation for this type of treatment.

There is more regulation in the US, but they have still done a lot. Of course, embryonic stem cells are very controversial everywhere, in terms of complications derived from using them, so because of that, we work exclusively with adult stem cells.

How did the stem cell industry develop in China? There is a Chinese researcher, Dr. Huang Hongyun – while in the United States, he discovered the potential for olfactory stem cells to be used in repairing damage caused by spinal cord injuries. When he came back to China, he had many patients, and used stem cells to cure their spinal cord injuries, and made many advances in this field. The advent of Chinese stem cell research really starts from him.

And in the United States, you have to go through this long clini¬cal trial process, but in China, we start with the patients right away, because they cannot wait. We use cells on them that we know to be safe and effective. Also, the government supports us very much; they can now afford to push this kind of research in a significant way. There is clinical stem cell research going on in almost every hospital, especially military hospitals.

There seems to be less regulation in China’s stem cell research industry, then. Have any issues or controversies arisen as a result of that? There is always a push and pull between safety and efficiency in this kind of research. But the research is still very neces¬sary, because we know a lot about stem cells, but the next frontier is discovering every possible way to manipulate these cells in order to treat a whole array of diseases and ailments in the body. We need to pinpoint the diseases we can cure, and then find every type of cell that can cure those diseases. The research is very detailed, so we have to be careful that any regulation that we follow allows us to access those details as well.

That being said, regulation is also very important, and it can help make stem cell research effective. You have to make sure that the cells you are using aren’t contaminated, that they’re healthy. You have to have a process that allows you to evaluate the treatment clearly and effectively. You need a process for determining how to use the cells you’re using, where to use them, all the possible approaches, and which approach is the best.

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