Much of the world’s progression in terms of medicine over the past few decades is down to biomedical science. This discipline combines the fields of biology and medicine in order to focus on the health of both animals and humans. The biomedical sciences are a set of sciences that apply natural and formal sciences to develop knowledge and technologies that can be used in healthcare – and we need them. For instance, identifying outbreaks of infectious diseases comes under the biomedical science banner and seldom has there been a time the human race has needed this branch of science so badly.
Pharmacology, human physiology and human nutrition are biomedical sciences. Determining the blood requirements of critically ill patients and monitoring biomarkers in cancer also fall under the heading. Biomedical science staff mostly work in healthcare laboratories where they do anything from evaluating the effectiveness of treatment by analysing tissue samples from patients to diagnosing diseases. In short, pretty much everyone in the world will, at some point in their lives, benefit from the services of a biomedical scientist.
Biomedical science is also being placed under a microscope by both China and Portugal when it comes to strengthening ties between the two countries right now. There’s a new impetus to create strong biomedical partnerships when it comes to bilateral Portugal-China co-operation. Further to this, the new Chinese ambassador in Lisbon has highlighted this medical field as a major one in terms of future co-operation between both countries.
Towards the end of last year, it was announced that an internationally renowned biomedical research centre, the Champalimaud Foundation in Lisbon, is establishing a partnership with China’s Shandong First Medical University, a–non-profit public higher education institution in the large metropolis of Tai’an in Shandong which also has campuses in Jinan and Qingdao. This partnership is all about cancer research and treatment.
According to a statement, the agreement envisages an initial focus on immunotherapy – a form of cancer treatment that helps a person’s immune system fight cancer – as well as providing for the creation of an Institute of Immunotechnology in China. It is expected to cost around US$10 million (MOP 80 million) to kickstart and ‘technical and scientific support’ for the project will be provided by the Champalimaud Foundation, which has been around for more than 15 years and has the former Portuguese Minister of Health, Leonor Beleza, as its president.
The partnership agreement was signed in October. Professor Markus Maeurer, physician and principal investigator at the Champalimaud Foundation’s Immunotherapy and Immunosurgery service, is leading the clinical research and collaboration project. The agreement was signed by João Silveira Botelho, vice president of the Champalimaud Foundation, and by Professor Han Jinxiang, the permanent executive deputy secretary of the Shandong First Medical University. It was signed in the presence of José Augusto Duarte, the Portuguese Ambassador to China, and Cai Run, the former Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Portugal.
The Champalimaud Foundation’s goal is to become a world reference centre for the study and treatment of pancreatic cancer. Immunotherapy is used to treat aggressive cancers as there are few therapeutic options for these cases, leading to high rates of mortality and morbidity. This is often the case with pancreatic cancer, which can be severe and sudden. Partnering with the Chinese university helps the foundation with its mission and will help inform future co-operation projects between China and Portugal.
The signed agreement provides for joint research and technological development projects, as well as for the organisations to jointly design clinical treatment strategies and to exchange and share technical and scientific resources. In the long term, the intention is to foster and expand the links between the new Institute of Immunotechnology and the business sector in China – as well as universities and local, regional and national governments – so that international co-operation programmes can be expanded, thus contributing to the strengthening of European-Chinese ties.
The partnership provides that the university in Shandong will dedicate a building on its campus where the Portuguese and Chinese research teams will be integrated and will work together on projects. These teams will be dedicated to oncological and infectious immunotechnology – basically the technology used in terms of the immune system when it comes to fighting cancer and disease. And in the building, a new centre will be created – the China-Europe Imunotechnology Institute. The university in Shandong has also expressed an interest in the foundation being closely linked to the centre’s long-term management. Both the Champalimaud Foundation and the Shandong First Medical University hope to attract, during the second phase of the project, direct investment from other public and private entities – both inside the Shandong region and further afield.
In March, a weekly British scientific journal classified the Champalimaud Foundation as the fourth best non-profit institution in artificial intelligence (AI) in the world. AI is a technology that is becoming increasingly used in biomedical science, with computer techniques performing clinical diagnoses and suggesting possible treatments. Leonor Beleza said that the ranking by the ‘Nature’ journal was a ‘recognition of the merit and excellence of research’ at the foundation. She added that the foundation ‘presents the largest concentration of groups working in computational neuroscience in Portugal’.
The Champalimaud and Shandong First Medical University project is not the first medical project that China and Portugal have partnered on. There are, in fact, a number of healthcare providers in the European country that are now owned by Chinese investors. One of the most high profile is the Hospital da Luz in Lisbon, which is one of Portugal’s best-known and most expensive private clinics. Luz Saúde, one of the largest healthcare providers in the Portuguese market, runs the hospital. The provider is part of the massive Chinese conglomerate Fosun.
Towards the end of last year, a national newspaper in Portugal reported that Luz Saúde was the company that had done the most business with the Portuguese state since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic through its subsidiary GLSMed Trade, a distribution company of medical products, equipment and devices. It was reported that roughly 38 million euros (MOP 371 million) worth of business had been done.
Other reports last month state that hospitals in the Luz Saúde group suffered a drop of between 70 and 80 per cent in activity due to the cancellation of non-urgent medical cases as a result of the pandemic – but from the perspective of product distribution and health equipment, business had increased. More than 18 million euros (MOP 176 million), for example, was spent on purchasing COVID-19 tests manufactured by Fosun Pharma, it was reported. Another Chinese company, Guangdong H&P Import and Export Company, was reported as the firm that had done the second-most business – worth 31 million euros (MOP 303 million) – with China since the start of the pandemic.
It can be said that the medical industry is a fairly new area of co-operation between China and Portugal. And it only shows signs of growing in the coming years. In fact, Sino-Portuguese relations have been strengthening over the past few years. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Portugal in 2018 was a key moment in the ties between both countries and Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa’s visit to China in 2019 only served to tighten the growing bond between the nations. And since the end of February, there’s been a new Chinese Ambassador to Portugal, Zhao Bentang. In March, the diplomat vowed to uphold the ‘good development’ of bilateral ties between his country and Portugal.
In an article published last month in the Portuguese press, Zhao Bentang said that the potential for co-operation between the two countries is extremely broad. He emphasised that Portugal and China are global strategic partners with ‘strong economic and technological ties’, as well as a ‘very broad perspective for co-operation’. He also highlighted the energy, digital economy and health sectors as areas of particular mutual interest. Plus, he recalled that Portugal and China are global strategic partners, with strong economic and technological complementarity and perspectives for co-operation.
The diplomat, who succeeded former Ambassador to Portugal Cai Run, said: “The Chinese side is willing to create more synergy with the Portuguese side in terms of development strategy, deepen co-operation in the areas of economy and trade, energy, infrastructure, digital technology, health, green development and in third markets to better benefit people and make an even greater contribution to regional and international development and prosperity.” He added that ‘projects in areas such as infrastructure, energy and others are making progress, while new areas of co-operation are constantly emerging’. He cited industry, the digital economy and health as new areas of co-operation.
Zhao, in the article, also highlighted the growing flow of Chinese tourists to Portugal, as well as an increase in Chinese students studying in the European nation. He pointed out that there are more than 30 higher education institutions in China that have Portuguese language courses and that in Portugal, a number of institutes and schools have Chinese language courses on their curricula. He added:
Since the emergence of COVID-19, thanks to understanding, support and mutual help, the Sino-Portuguese friendship has deepened [and] the China-Portugal global strategic partnership has grown stronger.
China and Portugal established diplomatic relations in February 1979 and a global strategic partnership in 2005.
In the article, the diplomat also quotes President Rebelo de Sousa, who recalled that the Portuguese and the Chinese met about 500 years ago and that the relationship between both ‘is exceptional’. He said: “I agree with that a lot. Although China and Portugal are located at both ends of Eurasia, the friendship between their peoples goes back a long way.” The relations between China and Portugal do indeed go back a long way – but they are growing all the time, mostly notably during the COVID-19 pandemic in the medical sphere. And that includes in the biomedical sciences, highlighted by the Champalimaud and Shandong First Medical University project, a world first in terms of immunotechnology and perhaps the first of many joint biomedical science projects between two countries who have a bright future together.