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International Collaborations Move to Next Level
Programs established with IMM, SHIS researches and People's Republic of China
Already a leader in international health care and medical research collaborations, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston has embarked on two affiliations with institutions in the People's Republic of China that break new ground in exporting the university's expertise in clinical research and drug development and enhance the dissemination and use of research and clinical data.
- The programs are post-doctoral training affiliation between The Brown Foundation Institute for Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases (IMM) and China's Taizhou Medical City in Jiangsu Province, and
- a medical informatics training agreement between the School of Health Information Sciences (SHIS) and the China Medical Informatics Society.
The IMM-Taizhou agreement was finalized last spring when the mayor of Taizhou City, Jin-Hua Yao, met in Houston with C. Thomas Caskey, M.D., IMM director and chief operating officer, and Nobel Laureate Ferid Murad, M.D., director emeritus of the IMM and Regental Professor. Murad also is holder of the John S. Dunn Distinguished Chair in Medicine and Physiology and on the faculty of the UT Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.
"While the UT Health Science Center has more affiliations with the People's Republic than any other country, this post-doctoral program is unique," said Caskey, who will direct the new program.
"More than just an agreement to work together, this involves an actual grant to the health science center from Jiangsu Province to train the future leaders of medical science and researchers in China."
As Caskey explains it, the agreement fits perfectly into the mission and work of the IMM. "Our goal is to make discoveries in the field of genetics involving major disease areas, such as cardiovascular, cardiopulmonary and neurodegenerative diseases, diabetes and obesity," Caskey said. "Uncovering the genetic makeup of these disorders, leads to the opportunity to develop drugs to treat them."
"For its part, Medical City is seeking training for its physicians and scientists in research and drug development skills, so they can return to China as leaders in those fields," he said. According to Caskey, Taizhou City, when completed, will be a complete health care research complex, much like the Texas Medical Center, but with the addition of actual product development and commercialization.
Five post-doctoral candidates will be chosen for the training program-all graduates of either Nanjing Medical University or Soochow University, two of China's oldest and most-respected institutions. Caskey's group screened a group of some 110 applicants for the program which began in January.
With degrees in disciplines ranging from medicine and biology to pharmacology and bioengineering, the Chinese students will be matched with faculty members at the IMM and the UT Medical School for three years of extensive study and research work in a variety of areas including human genetics, molecular biology, pharmacology and cardiology, working on research projects involving heart disease, neurological disorders, obesity/diabetes, aging, genetics and stem cell research.
The health science center already had agreements in place with both medical schools when discussions for the program began two years ago. A team from UT Houston was also invited to visit the two schools. Among them were: UT Houston's Yong-Jian Geng, M.D., professor of medicine and director of the Center for Vascular Biology, a graduate of Soochow and regular visiting professor there; George Stancel, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS); Dianna Milewicz, M.D., professor and holder of the President George Bush Chair in Cardiovascular Medicine at the Medical School; Hui-Ming Chang, M.D., vice president for International Programs; and Edward Yeh, M.D., chairman, department of Cardiology, UT M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. Geng and Milewicz are both on faculty at GSBS.
According to Geng, the emphasis will be on strengthening the participants' abilities in basic research and using effective research techniques. "Chinese medical science," Geng said, "is a few years behind the U.S. in these areas." For example, he said, while the Chinese conduct many clinical trials, most are just "trial and error" studies. Because the studies are not well designed using systematic scientific research methods, they do not produce accurate, organized data that can be readily interpolated or yield usable findings.
"We want to create a highly skilled, multidisciplinary group of researchers to conduct groundbreaking basic medical research leading to the development of effective research collaborations for pharmacological and product development," Geng said.
"These students will benefit from training in our strengths, our expertise in research and understanding of these diseases and in drug development," said Caskey, "and also our superiority in the use of nanotechnology and in biological science, such as the study of proteins and monoclonal antibodies."
Caskey also cites the Medical School's new Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences (CCTS), funded by the National Institutes of Health with the goal of decreasing the time between the development of new treatments and their delivery to sick patients, as another resource for the post-doctoral training.
"Not only do we want these participants to be fully inculcated in American medical research methods and clinical practice," Geng added, "We want them to understand the system of values, paradigms and thought processes behind our methods. And, of course, we want them to be fully inculcated in American life and culture and the collective mind-set of the society."
While the Taizhou City program will focus on clinical research skills, the SHIS program will train Chinese medical scientists in the management and use of data derived from research and also patient care. CMIA is the official organization for medical informatics in China, affiliated with the International Medical Informatics Association.
The agreement calls for two informatics training programs, one to be held in Beijing, the other in Houston, both beginning next year. In February, a delegation from CMIA met with a team from SHIS, including Dean Jack Smith, M.D., Ph.D.; Jiajie Zhang, Ph.D., associate dean for research and holder of the Doris L. Ross Professorship; Todd R. Johnson, Ph.D., associate dean for academic affairs; faculty members Kim Dunn, M.D., Ph.D.; Elmer Bernstam, M.D., and Chang, vice president for international programs and special advisor to the president of the health science center.
"The abundance of patients and potential patient data is an important asset the Chinese will bring to the partnership," said Zhang, who helped develop the program. "While China is very advanced in information technology, little informatics research is being conducted," he said, adding that harnessing the vast amount of patient data from the country's huge population will be essential to further improvements in effective health care and health care delivery.
Biomedical and health informatics have become increasingly crucial in the era of information overload and skyrocketing medical costs. According to Zhang, the most important applications of the field - which involves the effective collection, storage, communication and use of biomedical and health data - are the ability to access medical information anywhere, any time; the reduction of medical errors and health care costs, and the improved efficiency of health care delivery.
"The Chinese," said Zhang, "are particularly interested in clinical information systems used in hospitals, physician's offices and other treatment settings."
The training-to be taught here and in China by SHIS faculty-is a specially designed, three-day recurring Intermediate Short Course on Biomedical and Health Informatics. It will be offered to biomedical researchers, health educators and medical students, health care providers, health information technology professionals and health care administrators.
It will cover the basic concepts, methods and frameworks of informatics, the various information technology systems used in medicine, and how to design, implement and evaluate health information systems and the financial, technological and management challenges of health care.
The ultimate outcome is a basic understanding of biomedical and health information and how to apply that information to their research, education and IT system developments. It is hoped that some students will choose to seek advanced degrees at SHIS or other UT Health Science Center schools.
The course will touch on several of Zhang's own specialties, including patient safety and medical errors, human-centered design of health information systems, electronic health records systems, and personal health management on PDAs (personal digital assistants).
"Informatics," said Zhang, whose field is cognitive science, "involves two major components: computation and information systems and the human beings who use them. Without a systematic understanding of how people think, reason, perceive and act, it is difficult to design information systems that fit people's characteristics."
By Fran Dressman, for Institutional Advancement
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