Scientists hope that the genetically engineered rodents can test possible vaccines for the HIV virus. “A good animal model is critical for vaccine research,” Hongkui Deng, head of a Peking University team breeding mice with human immune systems. “We need models which resembles a human as closely as possible,” he said.
Scientists can create mice with “humanized” immune systems, including human blood cells, by injecting the animals with human stem cells. But the process requires a large number of stem cells, which are usually gathered from human umbilical cords. Those cords, and the cells they contain, are in short supply.
To deal with the shortage, Deng’s team is attempting to grow stem cells from human skin cells, which are reprogrammed by being injected with new chromosomes. “In theory, the method could provide an unlimited supply of stem cells,” Deng said.
Stem cell research has developed rapidly in China, which is now the world’s fifth largest publisher of peer-reviewed papers on the subject. China benefited from the fact that stem cell research is a young science, according to Deng. “Chinese researchers started from the same position as foreign researchers, unlike in other fields where we had to catch up,” he said.
China’s universities still lack world-beating science programs, which is why China needs to tempt researchers back from overseas. Deng earned a PhD in the US, but returned to China in 2003. “I was excited by the pace of change here, in science and society” he said.
Deng was also encouraged to return to China by promises of generous funding for research. “Financial support for stem cell research mainly comes from the government,” Deng said. “Industry support is currently much more limited than in the US.”
Deng's work one him two million dollars from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last year, making him one of only two Chinese researchers to win a Gates grant. “They identified a lack of animal models as one of the key bottlenecks in vaccine research,” Deng said. His research will be made freely available under the Gates Foundation’s Global Access Policy, he said.
The new funds will be spent on equipment, including supplies of mice. “We have published several studies already,” Deng said. “It's a process with multiple steps, and we are about halfway there.”