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Chen and the art of experimental surgery (10.1.06, 07:41)

Have you dined with a Nobel Prize Laureate lately? Professor Duan Chen at the Department of Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine has. Wonder what they talked about?

- My father’s best friend was a well-known professor of physiology in China, and more than 20 years ago he spotted a talent in me and encouraged me to become a scientist. In a way, he is partly responsible for me being here today, living out my passion for research, says Professor Chen at his new office in the Laboratory Centre of St. Olavs Hospital.

THE YOUNG LIVER SURGEON IN ACTION: From Nanjing Medical University Hospital, 1989. - I enjoy most foods, but you won't find any liver in my refrigerator, Duan admits.
A brain gain in full
Duan Chen has published more than one hundred research articles. He has been a visiting scientist at Yale, Harvard and Tufts universities, and has been an associate editor of Regulatory Peptides. The energetic professor is currently a member of the editorial board of the American Journal of Physiology.

He has been invited many times to be an expert member of international committees by international organizations, including the WHO and IUPHAR (the International Union of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology), to evaluate professorships by American universities, to write reviews and review manuscripts by prestigious international journals, and to lecture at international conferences.

Last December he successfully organized an international symposium at NTNU. And a couple of weeks ago, Duan dined with his friend and colleague Dr. Barry Marshall, the current Nobel Prize Laureate in Physiology or Medicine. Some people simply give you the distinct impression that they’re brainier than others, don’t they?

THE GRADUATE: Appropriately dressed for his Dr.Med. party.
Called by Spjøtvoll

- What is your field of research?

- I will not go into detail about my research, since I do not think it will be interesting for your readers. Nonetheless, my research is in functional genomics and translational research in an attempt to determine the function of networks of genes (and gene products) and to translate basic scientific discoveries into clinical applications.

We apply a wide range of technologies to monitor and analyse molecules and structures (at the nanoscale), as well as cells, genetically engineered mice, and finally patients. In terms of medical science, my topics focus mainly on gastrointestinal, or digestive, physiology and surgery.

- How did you get your current job at NTNU?

- In 1999, while working at Lund University, I received a letter from former rector Emil Spjøtvoll asking me if I would like to come to NTNU as a professor. I realized afterwards that the idea was proposed by a number of well-recognized NTNU professors in the Faculty of Medicine, and that my qualifications had been evaluated by an international committee. I accepted the offer with great pleasure and honour.


• Born in Fujian, China in 1960.
• M.D. and M.Sc., Nanjing Medical University, China in 1985.
• Surgeon, Nanjing Medical University Hospital, China, 1985-1989.
• (Ph.D. in Pharmacology), Lund University, Sweden in 1994.
• Assistant Professor, Lund University, 1994-1996.
• Associate Professor (Docent), Lund University, 1996-1999.
• Visiting Scientist, Yale, Harvard and Tufts Universities, USA, 1997-1998.
• Professor of Medicine (Experimental Surgery), Faculty of Medicine, NTNU, since 1999.

International duties

- What does an ordinary work day look like?

- An average day includes academic activities, such as writing research proposals, manuscripts, and lectures, and holding meetings with graduate and postgraduate students. There are sometimes administrative tasks that need to be taken care of, including being a member of PhD committees and acting as the department representative for phase II of the new university hospital.

International service jobs, like reviewing scientific manuscripts and grant proposals that have been submitted by other scientists, are important as well. At least once a month I am asked to review manuscripts that have been submitted to scientific journals. I always try my best to conduct experiments together with members of my research group. In addition, I teach students various surgical techniques.

- I see that half of your spacious office looks like an archive. Do you often participate in international conferences and publish papers, articles and books?

- I really want to get rid of these papers, but it appears to be very difficult even to clean my desk. About the meetings and publications, it is a kind of a routine, or a matter of time for me to attend international conferences as an active participant. I often get invited to give lectures at international conferences. Last month, I organized an international symposium in Trondheim that attracted many international top scientists as well as research students from the US, Japan, Sweden and Denmark.

Since I came to Trondheim, I have published 27 original articles in peer-reviewed journals like Gastroenterology, Cancer Research, Journal of Clinical Investigation, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA and 12 reviews and chapters in books/encyclopaedia. Recently, I have been invited as a prominent investigator in the field to write a theme article for the American Journal of Physiology.

- But better funding would facilitate long term planning, says Duan Chen (left). Other key members of the group include (from left to right): Björn Olof Stenström, Carl-Jørgen Arum, Marianne Furnes, Trine Skoglund, Chun-Mei Zhao.
The search for funding

- What goals would you like to achieve in the future? Do you think these goals can be achieved at NTNU and Trondheim?

- My ambition is to make my best contribution to NTNU as well as to the scientific community. At the moment, my research group consists of 9 members: principal investigator, researcher, post-doc, biotechnologist, and PhD students including surgeons, a surgeon-to-be, and a veterinarian. The goal for the research group is to perform excellent studies resulting in high standard scientific publications.

Although I do not want to seem as if I am complaining, I am sometimes concerned about the fact that key members of my group are mostly on one-year contracts, which does not encourage long-term planning. There is also quite a lot of work involved in seeking grants for research activities. Approximately 40 to 60 percent of my time has been devoted to it.

Of course it is disappointing to spend so much time on that instead of doing research. Nonetheless, I have brought NTNU external grants worth more than 10 million kroner since I began to work here, and have established two state-of-the-art laboratories. Thus, one might say that my efforts have been fruitful.

Helicobacter pylori and Alfred Nobel

- A few weeks ago you were invited to Sweden when the Nobel Prize Laureate in Medicine Barry Marshall was present. What do you talk about in such circumstances?

- I admire him immensely not only because he is a great scientist but also a hero. When he was a young medical resident (32 years old in 1983), he drank billions of bacteria in a brackish solution to prove his controversial theory that a bacteria called Helicobactor pylori causes stomach ulcers – not stress. Ten years later, scientists and doctors had finally digested his theory and now use antibiotics as the standard treatment for peptic ulcers.

Today, we know that more than half of the world’s population is infected with Helicobacter, which research has now implicated in gastrointestinal cancers, such as stomach cancer, a significant killer in Asia.

A major challenge remains: to develop a vaccine to eliminate Helicobacter, as Marshall said during a dinner on Friday December 16, that I was also invited to by Lund University, since Marshall and I are working in the same field. This time I asked him if he has changed his business card since we met at an international meeting in 2003. And, yes, he did a bit: from Barry Marshall (NHMRC Burnet Fellow) to Professor Barry Marshall Nobel Laureate (Senior Principal Research Fellow) at the University of Western Australia.

- I guess funding will be easier for him after the award?

- I knew that he had difficulties in getting grants and I am pretty sure it will be much easier for him now to get support from both academia and industry. But I guess he will not have much time to do laboratory research, since he told me that his schedule for 2006 is fully occupied by business trips. Anyhow, he asked me to keep him posted regarding our research, including an upcoming PhD thesis.

- What do you think it would take in terms of funding and scientific personnel to foster a Nobel Prize candidate from NTNU? Do you think it is possible in the near future?

- These are difficult questions to answer. Enough funding and outstanding scientists are, of course, essential. But in many cases, revolutionary discoveries have been made by scientists who have had great freedom in doing their research. I do hope that NTNU scientists, excluding me, would receive this award in the future.

DOUBLE BRAIN GAIN: A British study conducted by the Wellcome Trust suggests that people who speak Mandarin Chinese use both sides of their brain to understand and process languages. That sounds strange, but plausible - not unlike Mandarin.
- Does NTNU have a good environment for internal and external co-operation? Are there, in your opinion, relevant networks and infrastructures that connect NTNU to research groups and institutions abroad?

- From my point of view, the co-operation with colleagues here at NTNU and internationally is very good. Actually, it is a little difficult to count how many collaborators we have worked with internally and externally, because it’s dynamic and numerous. I have long-standing collaborations with our American friends at Harvard, Colombia and Tufts universities, Swedes (Lund University) and Japanese (Kyoto University) and probably soon with British colleagues: a group led by another Nobel Prize Laureate Jim Black.

- How is your experience as a researcher at NTNU perceived on an international level in your specific discipline?

- We have an excellent atmosphere and facilities for researchers at the Faculty of Medicine, especially at the Medical Research and Technology Centre and the new Laboratory Centre. Gastroenterological research in Trondheim has been very well recognized on the international level.

Xin Nian Kuai Le!

- Do you run into any language barriers at work, in everyday life or in the information flow at NTNU? And is the culture in Norway very different from other places you’ve lived and worked?

- Compared to China, I feel that Norway is a young country that is very open to foreigners, especially for scientists like me. I do not feel that there is a great difference among universities worldwide. We are driven by the same scientific ambitions as our colleagues abroad, and operate in similar ways.

As far as language is concerned, I have occasionally experienced some minor problems, but there are rarely problems at work, since we use English, which works perfectly well. And after all, we are working at an international university, not a high school.

- Do you have other interests outside the office?

- I have some very close Norwegian friends that our family enjoys spending time with. Every Christmas Day we are invited over to their house and they have introduced us to the traditional Norwegian Christmas cuisine. Apart from work, I have many interests, architecture being one of those.

- Last question: How do you say Happy New Year in Mandarin Chinese?

- Xin Nian (New Year) Kuai Le (Happy)!

By Kenneth Stoltz

Next portrait: Associate Professor André Liem, Department of Product Design