This would include Biodesign biomarker discoveries, TB screening and medical applications of nanotechnology.

“All of that would be outstanding and there’s a lot of opportunities for making all sorts of connections there that we are very excited about,” LaBaer said.

The fastest-growing research partners

At another stop in their whirlwind tour, Biodesign leadership hopscotched to the east coast of China to explore Soochow University, which is located in the Jiangsu province, about 60 miles west of Shanghai.

Like ASU, Soochow University was a teacher’s college in the 1950s, but has vastly expanded its research to become a comprehensive research university, and now is in the top 5 percent of China’s research rankings, with particular strengths in its engineering and medical schools.

“Soochow is one of the fastest growing research universities in the country, just like ASU,” LaBaer said.

There, they met with Soochow University’s Vice President Xiaohong Zhang, who gave an overview of the region and highlighted key opportunities at one of China’s fastest-rising research universities.

“There is a strategy to have the potential to exchange intellectual property (IP), cultivate shared research interests, to do discoveries and mutual exchanges of faculty and shared students, and perhaps joint appointments to explore,” LaBaer said. “In terms of IP, think of Soochow as the Chinese ‘Boston for bioscience.’ It’s situated in the heart of all the startups. They have a big area called Biobay that incubates start-ups, investors nearby, a few miles down the road from Wuxi, where all the big pharma companies have manufacturing — all right down the road from Shanghai, one of the biggest cities in the world.

“Soochow is very well positioned for us to do a partnership,” LaBaer said. “Monitoring American IP in China has always been a nightmare. But if we had a partner in China, who has their ear to the ground, it would be a lot easier.”

Among the Biodesign Institute's strengths to expand with China are new technologies for vaccine discovery and delivery, including breakthrough efforts made with Ebola, and the early detection and treatment of cancer and infectious diseases.

“They have a strong interest in synthetic biology, so the idea has been discussed about creating a new Biodesign center around this area,” LaBaer said. “The next steps will be crafting an agreement with them.”

Yan, who directs ASU's Biodesign Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics, currently partners with several Chinese universities to advance the field of DNA origami, which may one day revolutionize medicine by making and delivering drugs inside of cells. 

“Chinese scientists were fascinated by the potential of DNA origami nanotechnology for new health care and electronic applications,” Yan said. “I think we are much closer to real practical applications of the technology and we are actively looking at the first nanomedicine applications with our DNA origami technology.”

Biodesign researcher Tony Hu was most impressed with the speed and pace of Soochow’s progress, and an ideal setup as a “one-stop shop” for translational research into the marketplace.

“In Soochow, you can tell how quickly the technology can be translated within their high-tech park,” said Hu, who has made several important breakthroughs in tuberculosis, or TB, which has infected about one-third of residents in China.

“From the standardization of the product, to licensing, to negotiating with the investor or company for incubation, and also sales and marketing. We call this the ‘dragon line.’ The pipeline for translation is all there.”

This is very appealing to Hu and his research team, who have also adapted their technology to turn smartphones into handheld microscopes to make an impact as a versatile and powerful new tool in the worldwide fight against infectious diseases.

Through these expanded relationships with China, ASU hopes to continue to promote cross-cultural, breakthrough research on some of the world’s most pressing problems, and continue interdisciplinary study and engagement, entrepreneurship, and social and economic development locally and abroad.

“The framework for what we are going to do is starting to take shape,” LaBaer said. “We are tremendously excited to combine our best resources and ideas with these stellar organizations.”

Joe Caspermeyer

Manager (natural sciences), Media Relations & Strategic Communications