The Ministry of Science and Technology of China recently announced a list of projects under the category of ‘Stem Cell Research and Organ Repair’ to be funded by the National Key R&D Program. A project titled ‘Study of Technical Systems for Monitoring and Assessing the Treatment of Graft Versus Host Disease and Some Other Important Diseases with Mesenchymal Stem Cells’, led by Ren-He XU, associate dean (research) and Distinguished Professor of the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS), University of Macau (UM), is one of the projects on the list, becoming the first funded project led by a Macao entity listed under the National Key R&D Program. The project will receive a grant of RMB 30 million.

In 2022, a total of 27 universities and institutions have made the list under this category. They include renowned universities such as Peking University, Tsinghua University, Tongji University, and Zhejiang University. UM is the only higher education institution in Hong Kong and Macao on the list. Yonghua SONG, rector of UM, hopes that the university will make unremitting efforts in contributing to the national strategic development of science and technology. According to Prof. Xu, the funding of the project under the National Key R&D Program is a huge encouragement to him and his collaborators. Through this project, they aim to facilitate the standardisation and regulation of stem cell drugs, strengthen the scientific collaboration between Macao and mainland China, and promote the commercialisation of research findings. He is also grateful to UM and the Science and Technology Development Fund of Macao (FDCT) for their long-standing support and assistance through the project application process.

The project (File no: 2022YFA1105000) was jointly submitted by researchers from UM, the Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Sun Yat-sen University, Shanghai Taichu Biotechnology Company Limited, ShanghaiTech University, and Nanfang Hospital of Southern Medical University. The project was recommended by FDCT and the application was eventually approved by the Ministry of Science and Technology.

The project focuses on mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) from different sources, including those differentiated from human pluripotent stem cells (T-MSCs) and those isolated from human bone marrow via donation, for treating disease such as graft-versus-host diseases and knee osteoarthritis, as well as establishing monitoring and assessment systems for basic research as well as non-clinical and clinical research on MSCs. The research results will help to promote the long-term and healthy development of the stem cell industry in China and increase the capability and international competitiveness of the country in stem cell therapy.

Members of the research team has accumulated rich experience in basic, non-clinical, and clinical research on MSCs, and the formulation of technical guidelines for non-clinical evaluation of cell drugs. Prof. Xu has developed T-MSC together with Zhuhai Hengqin ImStem Biotechnology Company and the T-MSC has been approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration for clinical trial in the US for multiple sclerosis. Prof. Xu will also cooperate with Chen Guokai, professor of the FHS, to use his cell models to study the physiological and pathological roles of MSCs during disease development. Prof. Xu has worked in stem cell research and therapeutic applications for many years. He has published about 90 papers in topnotch journals, such as Nature Biotechnology, Nature Methods, Cell Stem Cell, PNAS, and Biomaterials, which have been cited nearly 9,000 times. He has also been granted more than 10 patents in the US and China. Prof. Xu is a council member of the China Society for Stem Cell Research and China Society for Cell Therapy, the founding president of the Macau Society for Stem Cell Research, and an executive editor of International Journal of Biological Sciences. Since joining UM in 2014, he has received a significant amount of funds from the university, FDCT, and the National Natural Science Foundation of China through different funding programmes.

The National Key R&D Program focuses on supporting major studies that concern social welfare and people’s livelihood, as well as strategic, fundamental, and forward-looking major scientific issues, major common key technologies and products that are related to the core competitiveness of industries, overall independent innovation capability, and national security, with the goal of providing continuous support and guidance in key areas of economic and social development. The category of ‘Stem Cell Research and Organ Repair’ under the program aims to address key scientific questions in stem cell development and organ repair. It covers the studies of basic theories and key technologies related to stem cell fate regulation, mechanisms for organ genesis and aging, organ function remodeling and manufacturing, methodologies of gene editing and regulation, and stem cell models for human diseases. It also encourages the exploration of frontier areas such as organ regeneration drugs, bio-artificial organs, and disease organoid models. The listed projects are expected to provide innovative theories and technologies for the repair and replacement of important tissues and organs and the diagnosis and treatment of major diseases.

UM’s first research project funded by the National Key R&D Program

Ren-He XU