Chinese professor at EU university studied monkey brains to help Beijing fight mountain wars

22nd November, 2021.      //   General Interest, Market Intelligence  // 

Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience via CNS shows five cloned macaques at a research institution in Shanghai

A professor at a Danish university collaborated with a Chinese army laboratory on genetic research designed to help soldiers operate at high altitudes, amid rising concerns about Beijing exploiting links with Western academia for military purposes.

Guojie Zhang of the University of Copenhagen co-authored a paper with a Peoples’ Liberation Army major general on an experiment that exposed monkeys to extreme altitudes in a bid to understand the impact of such conditions on their brains, Reuters reported.

The object of the research, which the paper says was funded by the Chinese government and military, was to develop drugs to prevent brain damage in soldiers operating on China’s high-plateau frontiers.

China’s military launched a program to research genetic causes of altitude sickness in 2012. The urgency of such research has grown as it reinforces its military in Tibet following a series of skirmishes on its contested Himalayan border with India.

Chinese and Indian soldiers have come to blows several times, including in fist fights, since a long-standing border demarcation dispute reignited in May last year.

Oxygen levels on the Tibetan plateau, at an elevation of around 4,500 meters, can be 35 percent lower than at sea-level.

Professor Zhang, a Chinese citizen, is also employed by BGI group, Shenzhen-based genomics firm that funds multiple researchers at the University of Copenhagen and has its European headquarters on the university campus.

He published the paper with Major General Yuqi Gao, the head of the PLA’s altitude research laboratory, in January 2020. The paper also listed two of BGI’s founders as co-authors.

The revelations come after a report urged ministers to protect UK universities from the unintended “risks” of growing dependence on China for research cooperation.

In a joint report published by King’s College London and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in March called for “a full audit of current projects with China” and safeguards to prevent research becoming dependent on cross-funding from tuition fees from international students.

Jo Johnson, the former universities minister who was lead author on the report, said at the time: “The UK urgently needs to put in place a framework for this key relationship so that it will be able to withstand rising geopolitical tensions. Failure to do so risks real damage to our knowledge economy,” said Johnson.

“The UK needs to do a better job of measuring, managing and mitigating risks that are at present poorly understood and monitored.”

Denmark’s intelligence agency in May warned Danish universities that they may unwittingly become involved in foreign military research. It cited the example of a student who co-authored research into 5G technology with an engineer from a Chinese military university.

Last month a US defense department report said China may be using biotechnology to enhance its soldiers performance.

Niels Kroer, the head of the University of Copenhagen’s biology department, said the university was not aware that the co-authors included Chinese military officers when it was published.

Professor Zhang told Reuters he did not notify the university because it did not require to report co-authors on scientific papers to it. There is no suggestion he broke university rules.

BGI said the study “was not carried out for military purposes” and brain research is a critical area for understanding human diseases.

Experiments on monkeys like those described in Professor Zhan and Maj Gen Gao’s research are controversial in many Western countries, but considered by many neuroscientists to be essential for furthering our understanding of the human brain.

Some have suggested that China and Japan, which have fewer restrictions on the use of monkeys in laboratory research, have overtaken Western researchers in the field as a result.

In 2020 Nikos Logothetis, a neuroscientist at Germany’s Max Pank institute who had faced public protests over the use of monkeys for research, said he was relocating to China.

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