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China is in the thick of a fight against infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis, and AIDS—a battle the entire world has a stake in. The University of Tokyo’s Institute of Medical Science (IMSUT) has thrown its weight behind the effort in collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a state research institution.

Japanese researchers are stationed at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Microbiology in Beijing.

Japanese researchers are stationed at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Microbiology in Beijing.

IMSUT’s Research Center for Asian Infectious Diseases is based at the academy in Beijing. Japanese scientists are permanently stationed at a pair of specialized institutions that belong to the academy—the Institute of Biophysics and the Institute of Microbiology—where they conduct joint research.

China’s economic development has triggered massive flows of people and goods around the country and across its borders. This, in turn, has opened up more routes for the transmission of illnesses. “In China, we’re on the actual front lines, with patients on the doorstep,” said Takaomi Ishida, an associate professor in charge of collaborative research with the Institute of Microbiology. He stressed the value of doing research under such conditions.

University of Tokyo professor Zene Matsuda explained that the impetus for launching joint studies in China was the SARS outbreak in 2003. The dearth of information on infectious diseases within China, he said, only added to the importance of doing research locally.

Matsuda noted that diseases can spread rapidly in China because of its large population, combined with its mix of advanced and economically developing regions. And with outbreaks occurring one after another in emerging countries such as India, he said the hope is to use the Chinese research to craft international countermeasures.

The researchers are working on several themes, from the mechanisms behind viral infections, to factors that contribute to virus propagation and hosting, to the development of antiviral agents. Ishida is currently focused on HIV, as cases of the virus that causes AIDS continue to increase in China.

When it comes to public health initiatives and sex education, the country lags behind. The number of people infected with HIV is estimated to exceed 1 million—far surpassing the 20,000 infections in Japan.

IMSUT is also working with a prominent hospital in Beijing and is pursuing epidemiology research on subjects including complications from HIV.

The researchers culture viruses, run experiments, and collect data. And they are getting results: Recently, they shed new light on how HIV induces osteoporosis. They also developed a method for analyzing the progress of fusion between HIV and other cells’ membranes. Such breakthroughs could be applied to research on other infectious diseases, such as dengue fever and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.

Overall, about 30 scientists from China and Japan are participating in the project. The Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development is currently supporting their endeavors under its Japan Initiative for Global Research Network on Infectious Diseases. Still, money is tight. Some companies spend tens of millions of dollars a year developing a single drug; the funding amounts to a fraction of that.

The path to effective virus defenses is long and arduous. Further steps may be needed to support the residency of Japanese researchers and expand hiring of local personnel.

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The path to effective virus defenses is long and arduous.