Profile: Bringing siRNA to the fore
By Hepeng Jia/Beijing and Kunshan, China
For Liang Zicai, a Peking University professor and the director of the Kunshan Institute of siRNA (small-interfering RNA), the first incentive for him to shift to the siRNA field was when it landed in his sights a decade ago.
'In the late 1990s my research at the Karolinska Institute, Sweden, was on antisense nucleic acid technology. Then siRNA technology appeared and largely blew away everything that was built on the foundations of antisense at that time,' Liang told Chemistry World. Quickly, Liang jumped aboard the siRNA boat. Ten years after this academic shift, with the support of the government of Kunshan - a small city near Shanghai - Liang was striving to form a
RNAi institute that could accommodate the translational medicine work of China's top siRNA scientists, and attract the nation's commercial siRNA companies to the first RNAi science park surrounding his institute.
Liang stands before the wall of this siRNA institute
© HEPENG JIA
Small interfering RNA molecules are double-stranded lengths of approximately 20 nucleotides and play a key role in RNA interference, which can be used to manipulate gene expression. siRNA has shown great potential in both life science research and pharmaceutical development.
A turbulent road
After achieving his PhD in invertebrate immunology from Sweden's Uppsala University, Liang went to Yale in the US for postdoctoral training before returning to Sweden's Karolinska Institute for an assistant professorship. Like many overseas Chinese scientists, Liang closely followed the scientific and economic development of the country.
'But at that time, I did not even dream that my life now would be so closely linked to Kunshan,' says Liang.
Due to its short distance to Shanghai, Kunshan, part of Suzhou City of Jiangsu Province, has become a manufacturing centre for information technology products, such as digital cameras, laptop computers, and Apple's iPhone.
Liang was introduced to Kunshan by Liu Wanfeng, general manager of Kunshan Tuspark, a subsidiary of the science park management corporation operated by Tsinghua University.
In 2003, Liu launched Kunshan Tuspark, the first science park in the highly industrialised city. Liu immediately invited Liang for a site visit when Liang became the chief scientist of the first major RNAi research project supported by China's national high-tech 863 Programme the same year.
'When I first went to Kunshan Tuspark, the area was a swamp with deep grass waving in the wind, surrounded by derelict farmland - in strong contrast to the manufacturing zones nearby,' Liang recalls.
Strong support by Liu and local Kunshan officials eventually persuaded Liang to form the Suzhou Ribo Life Science Company in the city in 2007 to develop a siRNA-based drugs against hepatitis B and work on chemical synthesis technologies of siRNA sequences.
Liang also began to invite others to base their companies to Kunshan in order to build up collective strength in the new sector.
In 2006, Liang had became a full-time professor at the Institute of Molecular Medicine of Peking University, and he soon saw that academic research in China was being poorly applied beyond the lab.
'After a professor publishes high impact papers, used up their funding, and their skilled graduate students graduate, most of their initial research results ended up somewhere collecting dust and very few could make their way to the market due to the lack of a pathway and expertise to commercialise them,' says Liang. 'This is really a big loss both to public research funding and to the professors themselves.'
Then, the idea of forming a translational medicine centre focused on RNAi technologies emerged.
Liang did not expect the idea to be overwhelmingly embraced by Kunshan officials. Among average Chinese local officials, the pursuit of Gross Domestic Product growth remains a dominant incentive, but a translational medicine centre is far from drug commercialisation and cannot achieve big profits.
However, Liang found that local government officials agreed to invest Yuan200 million (US$29.4 million) for building and equipping the proposed Kunshan Institute of siRNA, Yuan20 million each year in running budget, and much more to go towards forming an industrial zone for commercialising RNAi technologies.
'To my astonishment, many Kunshan officials became so familiar with the RNAi technologies that they now can do a better job than us when introducing the technologies to investors and audiences by using language that these people can easily absorb,' Liang says.
The effort of local government in Kunshan was very focused, according to Liang. For example, the first good manufacturing practice (GMP) facility for siRNA production was proposed by him in mid-April, and by 1 May, all formalities were finished and construction started. By 31 May, the structure of the 4000 square metre building was finished, and by 1 October, scientists had moved in.
The idea of developing an RNAi translational medicine centre was welcomed by Chinese academics. So far, several famous Chinese professors from Peking and Nankai universities as well as the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences have started to set up labs to translate the basic research already conducted in universities.
Besides providing labs and instruments, Liang's Kunshan institute offers a Yuan1 million grant to each professor per year. A three-party agreement between the professor, the Kunshan institute, and the institutions that hire the professors was formulated so that each party enjoys one third of returns if the professor's translational research is one day commercialised.
The gathering of top professors since mid 2009 has attracted a dozen companies developing or supporting RNAi technologies to Kunshan. And Liang's dream is for half of China's RNAi industries to be based in Kunshan in the coming decade.
'This is still in the initial phase, and we are still trying hard to make the environment good enough for the growth of our own company and for attracting the best talent from China and the world,' Liang says.