Hunting Down Disease Genes--Inspiring Ph.D. Research in a New German-Chinese Genome Project


Germany's Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) Berlin Buch and the Fu Wai Hospital of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences (CAMS) are building a new gene research laboratory in Beijing, the aim being to identify genes that play a key role in the pathogenesis of cardiovascular diseases. Maolian Gong, a young Chinese scientist who currently works at the MDC's "microsatellite centre" writes about her experiences in this multinational research environment.

My name is Maolian Gong. As a young Chinese scientist, I am participating in an exchange program with Germany, having joined the Chinese-German microsatellite genome research project at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) in Berlin, Germany.

The Microsatellite Center is a high-throughput genotyping laboratory dedicated to mapping monogenic and especially polygenic factors with linkage analysis by using fluorescent detection of microsatellites. I am working on the genetic basis of high blood pressure. Our goal is to find candidate genes affecting primary hypertension. After recruiting blood samples in China by Chinese scientists from Fu Wai Hospital in Beijing, I am carrying out a genome screen at the MDC in Berlin. As it is well known that hypertension is a complex, multifactorial, quantitative trait under a polygenic control, 30% to 50% of the variation in blood pressure between individuals is attributed to genetic factors, and the genes responsible for susceptibility and blood pressure variation are mostly unknown. However, we are working on a large pedigree from a secluded region, where environmental factors are similar, hoping to reduce the complexity of the disease.

Research at the MDC is very attractive and stimulating because scientists from all over the world are invited to come to the MDC to present their work. And the many interesting seminars foster scientific exchange among colleagues here. There is an excellent library here, so people can access the new scientific information easily. Moreover, the MDC is well equipped, so it is an ideal place for scientists to perform their work. These favourable research conditions also strongly influenced my decision to continue my Ph.D. work at the MDC after the first half year (December 1998 to June 1999) that I spent here as an exchange student.

Obviously, this stay abroad is an important period to me, because I get to know the scientific system here, including its advantages and disadvantages. After finishing my work here and going back to China, I would like to continue working in complex disease genetic research, because China offers a good population basis, and there are so many devoted scientists. Also, the country is opening up to the world, so we can cooperate with top scientists all over the world to make full use of the rare human resources to better understand health and disease.

In China, hard work is not only considered to be a virtue, it is also a trait demanded of all people of integrity. We have inherited a good tradition, but it is evident that China does not have sufficient funds to fully support research activities at its current stage. However, in Germany there are many institutes that, like the MDC, are well funded. What is also attractive is that the MDC is an international institute--it has been digesting the good ideas of intelligent foreign and local scientists for years. Maybe this is one of the reasons it keeps its vigour, which matches an old Chinese saying: It is easy to break one chopstick, but difficult to break a bundle of ten chopsticks. (That is, strength comes from unity.)

I strongly recommend that young Chinese life scientists spend some time in China first, get familiar with general research work, then come to Germany to be trained for several years. That way, they'll get a sense of the advantages and disadvantages of both sides and be able to combine the advantage of both sides. My advice for young scientists is to chose carefully among those institutes that have an excellent intellectual environment so that they may fully benefit from the interaction with the top scientists that work there or visit. (See also this feature's resource page.)

Other than scientific expertise, what else is required of young Chinese scientists thinking about working in the West? Obviously, language skills are very important for communication. I have learned English for about 10 years in school. My knowledge of medicine is from Shanghai Medical University and research after my graduation. I was very fortunate that I received training in genetic epidemiology as part of my master's degree at Fu Wai Hospital; that work proved to be very helpful for the research I've been doing here. As I said, it's very helpful to get basic knowledge of the work before entering a collaboration, because a quick and efficient start is much easier.

Personally, I hope there will be more collaborations between our two countries in the near future so that even more young scientists can benefit from such a great experience.

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