Xiangzhong ``Jerry'' Yang's driver darts between cars in the chaos of a north Beijing highway and turns south into a landscape crammed with construction cranes, each perched on a yellow, 10-story, metallic foot, like sentries to a new era of prosperity.
The University of Connecticut researcher has come home to a country where he nearly starved to death as a child and where authorities once condemned scientists to work on farms. Now he is asking China to help him become the world's first scientist to clone human embryos for their stem cells -- and perhaps cure mankind's most pernicious diseases.
Yang's memory of some names and dates have fallen victim to a 10-year battle with cancer, and he even forgets briefly that this day, July 31, 2006, is his 47th birthday. But his friends, family, former U.S. students and scientific colleagues in China remember. They wait patiently at a newly renovated, ultra-modern hotel to honor him.
When Yang arrives in the reception room of gleaming glass and black tile, Chen Jingda, the former Communist Party secretary at his alma mater, Beijing Agricultural University, rises and holds a glass of wine out to the table.
``To your health, which is vital not just to China, but to the entire world,'' Chen says.
Yang is a celebrity in Beijing, where he has traveled in an effort to convince government officials to set aside $50 million to launch his vision: an international, multipronged cloning project in which the finest minds in the world would collaborate rather than compete.
After almost a quarter-century in the United States, Yang is lobbying hard to propel his native country into the top ranks of biomedical science. It is a chance for the scientist from Storrs not only to push his plan forward, but also to make good on a lifelong promise to bring prosperity to the land of his birth.
The time is ripe. Beijing plans to host the world's best athletes at the Summer Olympics in 2008, Yang tells government officials during his visit. Imagine the prestige of also hosting an elite international team of stem cell researchers and cloning visionaries.
Yang has lined up tentative agreements from several top Western scientists to participate in an international consortium. Although they want to see more details of his plan, scientists such as Kevin Eggan of Harvard and Keith Campbell, co-creator of the first cloned animal, Dolly, and now a professor at the University of Nottingham, have indicated they are willing to help direct research in Chinese laboratories during periodic visits.
For Western scientists, the benefit is clear. They will have access to money and thousands of bright, young Chinese researchers. They will have a place to work without some of the political and religious roadblocks that have made research tricky in the United States.
For Chinese scientists, the collaborations will give them the most precious scientific currency -- international credibility. It is a chance for China to stake its claim on the cutting edge of biomedical research, erasing decades-old memories of the dismantling of its higher education system under Mao Tse-tung.
In an attempt to become a world-class scientific power, China is investing heavily in new research. And, for the first time in decades, substantial numbers of Chinese scientists trained in American universities are returning home, lured by promises of spacious new labs and unfettered financial support.
In Beijing, the contours of scientific promise are clear when Yang visits an old student, who is working on cloning a human embryo -- the research Yang is trying to get going in the United States.
Shaorong Gao is a Chinese version of Clark Kent, with spectacles, a wrestler's chest and ballerina's waist. He learned his trade with cloning pioneer Ian Wilmut and worked with Yang at Storrs for a year. But Gao was lured from the United States by the National Institute of Biological Sciences in Beijing -- one of the most prestigious labs in China's burgeoning biomedical establishment.
Because of federal funding freezes in the United States, Gao had little chance of landing his own lab there -- and zero chance of getting government support to conduct controversial cloning research.
In China, however, Gao has been outfitted with a brand-new laboratory that accommodates upward of 20 researchers -- more than Yang employs at his Center for Regenerative Biology in Storrs. The Chinese government and the city of Beijing have invested $50 million in the sparkling new building, which houses 30 large laboratories. On pristine, clean, blue slate counters sits state-of-the-art equipment, such as the micro-manipulators needed to insert DNA into eggs the size of a period.
Gao is paid the equivalent of $40,000 a year, far exceeding the wages of most Chinese scientists. Gao also was given a $100,000 housing allowance, a substantial sum even in the rapidly escalating Beijing housing market.
For lunch, Gao takes Yang to a luxury hotel connected to the research center by a walkway that crosses a tranquil pond and bamboo forest. Joining them is Li Wang, an embryonic stem cell researcher who worked with Yang's wife for a year in Storrs before taking a position at Beijing University.
A LAND OF OPPORTUNITY
Wang fits the profile of many of China's returning scientists, who tend to be in their 20s or 30s with no children, or very young ones. Many Chinese-born scientists with older children are reluctant to return to China, where children must take rigorous exams in Chinese if they are to qualify for higher education. Scientists with children who know the English lyrics to Beyonce songs tend to stay put.
But Wang sees China as a place of opportunity and has bought three apartments in the booming Beijing market. The excesses of the Cultural Revolution that destroyed much of China's educational system are -- to her -- just bad memories, held closely by people Yang's age and older.
Over lunch, the three talk about their work. Like Yang, Gao is interested in the potential of cloning human embryos. Gao tells Yang he has coaxed a human egg to divide once or twice -- essentially the same results obtained six or seven years ago in the United States, and far short of the hundred or so cells needed to produce embryonic stem cells.
And, like researchers in the West, Gao is having trouble getting human eggs to work with because of ethical concerns about exploitation of poor women. But there is no debate here about the morality of cloning. Most Chinese believe life begins at the moment of birth, so the destruction of 5-day-old embryos raise no concerns.
Yang makes the same sales pitch to Gao that he has been making to scientists in the United States. Collaborate, he tells Gao. You will reach your goal faster when more minds are working on the problem.
Yang urges him to work with Qi Zhou, another cloning scientist he is to meet in Beijing. Both are cutting-edge scientists, though neither is well known outside of China.
But Yang is not optimistic that Gao will listen. A survivor of political, ethical, and financial battles in his cloning efforts in the United States, Yang understands that for all the promise of Beijing, he faces a different set of obstacles rooted deep within Chinese culture.
Money may be the least of Yang's obstacles in launching a true international stem cell consortium in China. He must convince young researchers to defy convention and challenge authority. He must convince cautious young Chinese scientists to work on cutting-edge research with Western scientists. And he must get Chinese scientists like Gao and Zhou to work with each other.
Zhou is a researcher at the Institute of Zoology -- part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and home to efforts to clone the endangered giant pandas. During a visit, Zhou gives Yang a tour of his new laboratory and equipment in the cavernous new $40 million headquarters under construction in northern Beijing. The institute is next to a new natural history museum, where visitors walk by a giant quotation, written in English etched in marble, by Charles Darwin.
In a talk to students at the zoology institute, Yang punctuates his lecture with the English words ``Science'' and ``Nature'' like a Buddhist chant. The message to young researchers is clear in any language: To win prestige, you must publish in those or other major Western research journals.
The Chinese government, recognizing the problem, offers 1 million yuan, or about $120,000, to scientists whose research lands in those publications. But to have a paper accepted by these journals, Yang tells them, you must tackle difficult scientific questions; you must learn to challenge the scientific consensus of the day.
Years earlier, Yang learned that lesson the hard way. He tells the students how he missed a chance to make history because he accepted scientific dogma that it was impossible to clone an animal using adult cells.
After his talk, Zhou, a severe-looking man with a flattop you can land a fighter plane on, shakes his head.
``The students only hear that they can get published in Science and Nature,'' Zhou says. ``They don't ask the question how to get published.''
Zhou is frustrated with his students. What good are all the buildings and equipment if the budding scientists won't challenge common scientific wisdom? The number of research papers published by Chinese in science journals has increased dramatically in recent years, Zhou says, but adds ``they are low-impact papers, duplicating other people's research. They do not produce new ideas.''
The spirit of scientific inquiry has run smack up against Confucian tradition. Chinese give great deference to authority and therefore hesitate to challenge the findings of senior scientists. Even in the boomtown atmosphere of 21st century China, it is not only unseemly, but potentially dangerous, to draw too much attention to oneself.
Zhou is among the leading contenders to be the first to clone a human embryo. In collaboration with a French scientist, Zhou has cloned monkey embryos that grew to the blastocyst stage, the stage when stem cells can be isolated from the embryo. Work is now underway in Zhou's lab to be the first in the world to clone a monkey. And if monkeys can be cloned, Zhou says, it should be relatively simple to create cloned human embryos as well.
Gao, from the National Institute of Biological Sciences in Beijing, is also a legitimate contender.
Yang urges Zhou to share his research results with Gao and collaborate with scientists working in related fields. Yang is particularly eager to match Gao and Zhou with a tissue engineering expert, from the People's Liberation Army, who is interested in using embryonic stem cells to regenerate heart and muscle tissue.
The two men could supply cloned embryonic stem cells to the researcher, who could implant them in patients with various diseases, Yang argues.
But the tissue engineering researcher wants to learn cloning on his own. Gao and Zhou want to learn tissue engineering techniques. Chinese may be deferential to superiors, but they feel little need to cooperate with their peers, Yang explains.
``It is harder to get two Chinese to collaborate than to get a Chinese scientist and foreign scientist to work together,'' Yang sighs.
Yet cooperation and collaboration, reaching across local laboratories as well as international boundaries, lie at the heart of Yang's vision for his consortium. The free flow of scientific data, Yang believes, will ignite an explosion of knowledge after the cloning of a human embryo finally takes place.
Yang is not sure exactly what his own role will be in China's scientific renaissance. Perhaps he will have a role like Xiaodong Wang. For a few months of the year, Wang works at the Institute of Biological Sciences. For the rest of the year, he's a professor of biochemistry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.
Both men know that if China is to reach its scientific potential, they must change the cultural attitudes of researchers.
``In China, everything is difficult,'' Wang says. ``But everything is possible.''
At the 47th birthday party in a Beijing hotel, Yang forgets about lobbying for money, forging new partnerships, or anticipating new scientific advances. He bathes in a hero's welcome.
In the United States, Yang takes pains to hide the scar on his chin, the demarcation point of surgery to remove cancerous tumors that left a gaping hole in his face, covered now by a skin graft. But among friends, relatives and colleagues, Yang never bothers to cover his chin. He knows that if he forgets someone's name, he will be forgiven.
His sister is here, busy greeting guests. So are a few of his old friends from the university who hailed from the same area of rural China where he nearly starved to death as a child.
College classmate Wenguang Mi grew up in a neighboring village, and he and Yang laugh about how much they envied residents of a third village.
``They were allowed to grow pears, but we could only grow corn. They were 10 times richer,'' Yang says.
Gao is at the party. So is Li Wang.
No one in this room doubts Yang will accomplish his dream.
``Most scientists are like me, they like to take things step by little step,'' Li Wang says. ``Jerry likes to tell the big stories.''
She pauses and adds, ``He's a genius.''
The trip is only the first of three Yang will make to China in the next six months. By his third trip in January 2007, it becomes clear that Yang's idea has taken root and morphed into an even larger campaign.
Yang hopes that by the end of this year, China will officially back the stem cell consortium, which will boast scientists from China, the United States, Japan, Singapore, the United Kingdom and maybe other countries as well.
The question is no longer whether China will launch Yang's global stem cell and cloning initiative, but how much money it will spend.
But Yang can't let go of Connecticut. His wife is here. His son is American. His oncologists are in Boston and New York. Even after a Connecticut committee in November declines to fund his cloning plans, Yang promises to reapply this year.
``My home is in Connecticut. Connecticut can still be the cloning capital of the world,'' he says. ``As a scientist, it is the outcome that matters. It does not matter where the work is done.''
At his home in Storrs, Yang gets up every morning and mixes Chinese medicinal herbs into teas and pastes he uses for cooking.
Every morning, he swallows an experimental chemotherapy pill from the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
Every morning, he hopes some combination of East and West will keep him alive long enough to realize a dream born of two cultures.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun