International mentorship is win-win for cancer researchers in U.S. and China

Lung cancer is the single biggest cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide. A global problem is now being tackled globally by a unique relationship between Shanghai, China and the University of Colorado Cancer Center.

Shengxiang Ren, PhD with D. Ross Camidge, MD, PhD

In 2014, Shanghai oncologist and cancer researcher Shengxiang Ren reached out to CU Cancer Center investigator Ross Camidge, MD, PhD, director of the CU Thoracic Oncology Program, to collaborate on a diagnostic conundrum in one of Ren’s Chinese lung cancer patients.

“We sent part of the patient’s lung cancer specimen to Colorado for testing to complement the assays we had done in China. He then went on the appropriate initial treatment in Shanghai and his tumor responded,” says Ren. The collaboration resulted in a paper published in the Journal of Thoracic Oncology.

In 2015 the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer (IASLSC) hosted its World Conference on Lung Cancer in Denver, CO, and Ren earned a fellowship from the organization to attend the meeting and spend two weeks after the conference working alongside the Colorado researchers he had known from email and phone conversations.

“I learned a lot in those weeks,” Ren says. “Most importantly I learned that I should spend more time here to know how new drugs are developed and to try and learn as much about the science of lung cancer as I could.”

In the summer of 2017, Ren returned, this time for a two-year fellowship at CU Cancer Center again sponsored by the IASLC. Ren is researching lung cancer biology in the lab of Fred R. Hirsch, MD, PhD, while studying the clinical applications of new medicines by continuing to work with Camidge. Dr. Hirsch is an adjunct professor at Tongji University, Dr. Ren’s home institution, and has been hosting several investigators from Tongji, with partnerships leading to many collaborative scientific studies and publications.

Fred R. Hirsch, MD, PhD with Shengxiang Ren, PhD

“It’s a great opportunity for scientific cooperation in which we can combine the population size advantage of China and our massive clinical experiences with the scientific advantages present in the U.S. to make a win-win strategy,” Ren says.

Beyond a growing number of publications and academic projects, the partnership is already paying off in terms of direct patient benefits. After his first visit, with Ren’s help, the same patient from Shanghai who started therapy in China but became resistant to the licensed therapy was able to fly to the U.S. to access a novel treatment in a lung cancer clinical trial offered at CU Cancer Center.

More recently, in September 2017,  Dr. Ren helped one of his Chinese patients access CU’s ground-breaking Remote Second Opinion program, in which patients from around the country and the world can send notes and scans to a CU expert and then speak via phone (in this instance, with the help of a mandarin translator), about diagnosis, prognosis and treatment options. Through this program, Dr. Camidge was able to identify an appropriate clinical trial being offered in Hong Kong and he and Ren were able to make the necessary introductions to direct the patient to this next step in their journey, without the patient ever having to leave home.

At the 2017 World Conference on Lung Cancer, this time in Yokohama, Japan, Camidge and Ren were highlighted as an example of a highly successful international partnership.

“Dr. Ren is incredibly motivated and I think we both learn a lot from each other. He is very accomplished in China and when they send their best candidates to the USA, it really shows,” says Camidge.

“This mentorship has benefitted me a lot, especially in learning to be ‘molecularly minded’ to make the best use of drugs in the lung cancer clinic these days,” Ren says.

Ren is the Vice Director of Medical Oncology at Shanghai Pulmonary Hospital, where he has participated in more than 20 phase III clinical trials and has initiated 5 phase II clinical trials. Whereas the acclaimed Colorado program sees approximately 500 new lung cancer patients a year, Dr. Ren’s program sees 8,000. He will return to Shanghai in the summer of 2019.

“By sharing each country’s strength, this collaboration between CU and China, and others like it, continues to accelerate the pace at which we can combat the disease,” says Camidge. “We’re all in it together.”

“The University of Colorado Cancer Center has over the last few years prioritized international collaborations, and it is my hope that Dr. Ren’s example from Shanghai will allow us to expand our work with many other international institutions. Such collaborations are of crucial importance for advancing scientific knowledge, and University of Colorado has clearly demonstrated scientific excellence and its attractiveness for partnerships for international collaborations,” says Hirsch, who also is CU Cancer Center’s Associate Director for International Programs.

About the author: Garth Sundem

In addition to writing for the University of Colorado Cancer Center, Garth is the author of the books The Geeks’ Guide to World Domination, Brain Candy, and Geek Logik. Contact him at garth.sundem [at] ucdenver.edu.

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