Qimin Zhan, M.D.
President of Peking University Health Science Center, President of Peking University Shenzhen Graduate School
Mind in science, heart in art
To Qimin Zhan, a true physician has a wealth of medical knowledge, superb skills, and a love for humanity. As a physician-scientist who has his mind in science, Zhan often finds comfort in the arts, which inspires him with innovative ideas and motivates him amid difficulties. At Peking University, he studies pathogenesis and gene mutations in esophageal cancer, a disease that is uniquely prevalent in the Chinese population. With a hope of a “healthier China,” he is leading domestic and international efforts to find solutions.
Who sent the summer breeze on a cold winter night
Melting the ice sealed bleak winter
Who lit the candle in the dark
Shining in people’s desperate hearts
It may come as a surprise that the lyric writer and singer behind the song is Qimin Zhan, a scholar of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and the President of the Peking University Health Science Center.
“As a physician-scientist, you need not only a wealth of medical knowledge and superb medical skills, but also a love for humanity…”
“As a physician-scientist, you need not only a wealth of medical knowledge and superb medical skills, but also a love for humanity,” says Zhan. He says that only when a physician has both “wings” can one fly higher and farther.
At work and in life, Zhan has his mind in science and his heart in art. He became the “charming role model” in his students’ eyes while leading and promoting the rapid development of China’s molecular oncology research.
Shouldering the research of prevalent cancers in China
In academia, Zhan focuses on tumor molecular biology and tumor translational medicine research. Zhan’s research team mainly targets esophageal squamous cell carcinoma, a malignant tumor with the highest morbidity and mortality in China compared to the rest of the world. “Facing cancers with ‘Chinese traits,’ biomedical scientists in China are duty-bound,” he says.
By collaborating with domestic research teams and combining esophageal squamous cell carcinoma samples and clinical information from patients, Zhan’s team discovered eight significant mutated genes that correlate with the disease’s occurrence in 2014. Among the mutated genes, FAM135B is a newly discovered tumor-related gene. Meanwhile, they also collected vital data on gene copy number variants in esophageal squamous cell carcinoma. These gene mutations and copy number variations are essential factors in the occurrence and development of the disease. The findings can provide new insights for diagnosis, treatment, and drug development. This discovery was published in the journal Nature.
“Developed countries in Europe and the United States invest not so much research efforts into these cancers with ‘Chinese traits,’ and thus if we don’t initiate innovative research, there will be no effective treatment for these patients.”
Zhan has emphasized that besides the most prevalent esophageal squamous cell carcinoma, other cancers such as liver cancer, gastric cancer and nasopharyngeal cancer are malignant tumors with the highest morbidity and mortality in China compared to the rest of the world, compelling Chinese scientists and physicians to focus on research and prevention of these cancers. “Developed countries in Europe and the United States invest not so much research efforts into these cancers with ‘Chinese traits,’ and thus if we don’t initiate innovative research, there will be no effective treatment for these patients. Even if there were, the expensive treatment costs and mortality rate will continue to burden the people of China,” he says.
To understand the disease’s pathogenesis, Zhan led his team to tackle the research from multiple angles, including molecular biology, genomics, and tumor microenvironment. The tumor microenvironment in the development of esophageal cancer and its interaction with the genome has been the focus of Zhan’s team in recent years. “In our study, we have found many potential molecular markers and druggable targets. We hope that by working with pharmaceutical companies, we can translate these lab research findings into diagnosis methods and treatments for cancer,” he says.
In the context of the Healthy China Initiative, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council have put forward a cancer prevention and control plan, “prevention first, combined with treatment and control.” Zhan’s team also further advanced cancer research strategy by including “pre-cancerous lesion” as a topic, focusing on controlling cancer risk factors. “Besides esophageal cancer, other gastrointestinal tumors have important physiological signals in the early stage, which can help us distinguish high-grade and low-grade lesions. If we can block the signals at the early stage, it can effectively prevent pre-cancerous lesions from becoming tumors,” says Zhan. He hopes to actively promote the early detection, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer by emphasizing the importance of early diagnosis and treatment in high-risk areas.
Integrating resources, promoting health technology innovation
In addition to academic research, Zhan has several positions associated with cancer associations and societies: vice-chairman of the Chinese Anti-Cancer Association, vice-president of the Chinese Medical Doctor Association, vice-chairman of the Chinese Society of Microcirculation, president of the International Cancer Institute of Peking University, and more. Among them, the International Cancer Research Institute of Peking University, established in October 2019, is currently Zhan’s “anti-cancer frontline.”
“The International Cancer Institute of Peking University will make full use of high-quality resources deploy cutting-edge discoveries in translational applications, clinical diagnosis, and treatment.”
Zhan says that in response to the country’s significant need for scientific and technological innovation and cancer prevention, Peking University used its comprehensive academic advantages to establish the Cancer Institute. “The International Cancer Institute of Peking University will make full use of high-quality resources and deploy cutting-edge discoveries in translational applications, clinical diagnosis, and treatment. It aims to nurture a group of research talents with international-leadership qualities, contributing to China’s cancer research prevention and control,” he says.
“The development in medicine has two obvious traits: one is scientific innovation, the second is interdisciplinary collaboration…”
With more than a hundred years of history, the Peking University Health Science Center plays an essential role in China’s medical field. As the center director, Zhan hopes that cancer research is not limited to the medical field. “The development in medicine has two obvious traits: one is scientific innovation, the second is interdisciplinary collaboration,” he says. Zhan used the International Cancer Institute of Peking University as an academic exchange platform, inviting different universities and various fields to communicate and cooperate, building a health and technology innovation network.
In 2020, the project team formed by the International Cancer Institute of Peking University and other research institutes successfully applied for the National Natural Science Foundation of China’s “Center of Basic Medicine” project. “We are the second Center of Basic Medicine in the project’s history!” says Zhan. Moreover, the institute has also published landmark research in genomics and single-cell sequencing in Cell, Cell Research, and other journals. The published findings were significant and have attracted attention from scientists worldwide.
From the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences to Peking University, Zhan was immersed in Beijing’s academic environment, witnessing the golden age of cancer research in China. “With the support of China’s national and Beijing’s regional policies, universities in Beijing have developed a strong academic atmosphere. Beijing is also gradually growing into an international cancer research hub,” he says.
Zhan’s next step is to strengthen international collaborations. “We still have room for research and development improvements if we want to play a crucial role in leading and supporting the field of cancer research worldwide,” he says. Zhan added that there are many research institutions and an abundant number of medical samples in Beijing, presenting as a strong foundation for international cooperation. “Cancer research is a global issue. We will continue to share our resources and make joint efforts to end cancer as soon as possible.”
Tapping in science and art to cultivate innovative talents
Being in the cancer research field for more than 30 years, Zhan has also experienced hesitations and hardships. He is incredibly thankful for Min Wu, a tumor geneticist and cell biologist. “I served as the director of the State Key Laboratory of Molecular Oncology of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences from 2002 to 2016. Wu, who held that title before me, gave me a lot of encouragement and guidance,” Zhan recalled with sentiments. “I was standing on the shoulders of giants and climbing upward. Wu is a significant mentor in my career, and I look up to him.”
Besides the help of mentors, art was also a vital support to Zhan. He sang at the graduation ceremony of the Healther Science Center, played pipa on the TV lecture program “Voice,” and joined NetEase Cloud Music as a musician. Zhan uploaded more than 40 songs, some of which were his original music.
“I wrote an article titled ‘Science and Art Meet at the Mountain Peak,’” says Zhan. He firmly believes that science and art share common grounds and can influence and nurture each other. “Art can be a key factor in motivating your research career. When you face difficulties, art helps with adjusting your mindset, allowing you to see a rich and colorful world beyond the research topic in front of your eyes.”
“The key to education is to cultivate students with the spirit for scientific innovation and sentiment for arts and humanity…”
As an educator, Zhan often encourages his students to have their “mind in science and heart in art.” “The key to education is to cultivate students with the spirit for scientific innovation and sentiment for arts and humanity,” he says. Every year, during student orientation at Peking University Health Science Center, Zhan faces a new generation of physicians and biomedical scientists. He hopes that these students gain a wealth of knowledge from their future study and work, view medicine as a lifelong pursuit, and experience self-cultivation through arts, nurturing innovative thinking. “Medical skills, ethics, knowledge, and humanity are the traits that a true physician possesses.”
Looking into the development of Chinese cancer research in the next decade, Zhan, a molecular oncologist and medical educator, is filled with hope and confidence. “I am optimistic about technological innovation and the growth of talents. Cancer diagnosis and treatment may evolve from data digitization to data visualization. There may also be major breakthroughs in clinical therapeutic interventions.”
Zhan is looking forward to the day when cancer is no longer a “terminal illness” and becomes a “preventable, treatable, and controllable” chronic disorder with a significant decline in morbidity and mortality. He hopes to improve people’s overall health and push the establishment of a “healthy China.”