NEW YORK – The Chinese government has launched what could prove to be one of the largest and best funded proteomics research initiatives to date.
Called the π-HuB Consortium, or Proteomics Navigator of the Human Body, the project is envisioned by its leaders as a 30-year, multibillion RMB effort that aims to map the human proteome at levels ranging from individual cell types to tissues and organs; to study proteomic changes and their links to health, aging, and environmental exposures; and to develop computational models and tools to integrate proteomic and other data for applications like disease risk assessment, diagnosis, and treatment guidance.
The consortium also plans to invest in the development of new proteomic technologies, with a particular focus on single-cell proteomic and protein sequencing technologies.
The effort will be broken up into three 10-year stages, the first of which was launched this year and is slated to run through 2032. Jing Yang, a principal investigator at China’s Guangzhou National Laboratory, which is participating in the initiative as a strategic partner, said that the project’s leaders are targeting government funding in the billions of RMB to support this initial stage of research, with additional funding going toward building a new laboratory facility in Guangzhou, where the project is headquartered.
The π-HuB Consortium is part of a larger effort announced by the Chinese government in 2018 to develop big science projects as a means of both pursuing research and innovation internally and expanding its cooperation and influence internationally. The consortium is one of three initial long-term projects to emerge from this effort.
Tiannan Guo, a tenured associate professor at Westlake University and a π-HuB participant, said that the project is the only one of the three with a life science focus and that it was selected from among dozens of competing proposals.
As such, the project represents a significant commitment by the Chinese government to proteomics and, in a sense, a vote of confidence in the field’s potential.
Guo said that the government wanted to invest in an area "that is not so mature but which is of very fundamental importance."
Previously, the Chinese government had invested heavily in genomics, granting BGI a $1.5 billion 10-year loan in 2010, for example, and footing the bill for the China National GeneBank, which opened in 2016.
Yang said the proposal also benefited from China’s existing proteomics research experience and infrastructure. The country has been a prominent participant in international projects like the Human Proteome Organization’s Human Proteome Project, where it has led efforts to characterize the liver proteome. China also has a number of large proteomics facilities such as Beijing’s Phoenix Center.
Developed and funded by China and overseas partners, the new project is intended to be an international one, Guo said, noting that more than half of the consortium’s leadership council consists of researchers from outside the country. A number of prominent proteomics researchers including ETH Zurich emeritus professor Ruedi Aebersold, Max Planck Institute researcher Matthias Mann, and Mark Baker, former professor of proteomics and biochemistry at Macquarie University, are involved in the effort.
Guo said that details of how the project will facilitate international collaboration remain to be determined but that "we are open for discussion."
He suggested that, initially, international collaboration might consist of Chinese and foreign research groups coming together, each with their own funding, to pursue projects within the π-HuB Consortium. Another route might be for international labs to send samples to π-HuB’s Guangzhou facility for analysis or to send personnel there for work, training, or the exchange of methods. Guo also said the π-HuB leadership hopes that scientists from around the world will come to its headquarters to help implement their labs’ proteomic workflows at the center.
Yang said the π-HuB project might allocate some funds outside the country, both to support international researchers and to establish facilities overseas, though he said this would likely be a longer-term effort and would require various details to be worked out.
Macquarie University’s Baker, who has served for the past three years as a member of the π-HuB consortium’s scientific steering committee, suggested a number of modes of collaboration, including postdoctoral exchanges, fellowships funded or co-funded by π-HuB, and projects funded by agencies outside China and run collaboratively with a π-HuB partner.
Phillip Robinson, professor of medicine at the University of Sydney and codirector of the Australian cancer proteomics research program ProCan, toured the Guangzhou facilities during a π-HuB planning meeting that he and Baker attended last month, along with several dozen other Chinese and international researchers.
"The scale of [the project] is so huge that you can’t believe it," he said. "They are very serious."
He said the consortium could enable larger proteomic projects than those he and his group currently have the capacity for.
"There are bigger projects we can do jointly with them," Robinson said. "ProCan has run for seven years now. ProCan is doing really well. We have 45 scientists. We have over a dozen mass specs in our institution. We have analyzed over 22,000 human specimens. But they are all retrospective. Imagine if we could do prospective [studies], if we could take plasma from cancer patients and follow their journey and look at whether they have recurrence and metastasized or [study their] survival."
He said that while ProCan has many collaborators to collect such samples, it doesn’t have the capacity to analyze them.
"We haven’t got the capability to go from 7,000, 8,000 samples per year to tens or hundreds of thousands," he said. "And [π-HuB] is showing they can run programs on that scale."
Robinson said that his sense from the planning meeting is that international collaboration will be key to the consortium’s success.
"They plan for as many countries as want to get involved," he said. "I don’t know how long it will operate without highly visible, highly active international support from labs around the world."
Robinson cautioned, however, that fully realizing this sort of cooperation could be tricky, given the political tensions between China and some of its potential collaborators.
"It’s very hard to think in terms of how to collaborate with an entity like this when for foreigners, working in China can be difficult," he said. He cited as a practical example of this dynamic the fact that on his recent trip to the π-HuB meeting in Guangzhou, his institution required him to use a "burner" laptop and email address.
He said the extent to which the consortium would be able to fund outside researchers and entities was also an open question.
"How they can fund international scientists to be involved in the project is going to be very difficult and an evolving process," he said. "They want to fund labs around the world, but they can’t do that yet. They have to prove to the government, I think, that the funding is essential, that it is necessary for π-HuB to grow and continue."
"I think it remains to be seen how much real interactions at the operational level are going to be possible here," said Neil Kelleher, director of the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute at Northwestern University and a researcher the consortium has been in touch with.
Kelleher said the launch of the project was an encouraging development for proteomics in that it could lead to more of a focus on the space from governments and funding agencies.
"If you’re seeking to lead in proteomics, there are forces at work putting substantial resources on the table," he said. "You can’t just drift into the future and expect to be a leading force in proteomics. You need to pay attention to what is happening."
Yang said that the consortium’s Guangzhou headquarters will likely be finished by the end of the year. In the meantime, it has established a pilot lab in Guangzhou that features 17 mass spectrometers, largely from Thermo Fisher Scientific and Bruker.
Guo said that while the consortium plans to add new mass spectrometers beyond those 17, likely the Thermo Fisher Scientific Orbitrap Astral and Bruker timsTOF systems launched this year, it will be careful with its purchases given how quickly mass spec technology is advancing. Yang said that in addition to mass spec, the consortium is also considering multiplexed immunoassay platforms from Olink and SomaLogic as well as emerging protein sequencing technologies. The consortium also aims to fund development of new proteomic technologies, he said.
While a number of companies in the omics and life science spaces have recently flagged slowdowns in their Chinese business operations, Yang said government funding for life science research and the π-HuB project remains steady.
According to a white paper recently published by the π-HuB consortium, in its first 10-year stage, the project will aim to "generate single-cell resolution [proteomic] atlases of all major human organs and tissues" across a diverse range of populations; characterize proteomic changes linked to a variety of phenomena including microbiomes, drug treatments, diet, age, and ecology; map quantitative trait loci associated with disease phenotypes; characterize the proteomes of major organ systems in different disease states; and develop an informatics system for collecting and interpreting this data.
Guo said he believed that to ensure continuation of the program beyond this initial stage, the participating researchers would need to deliver not just published papers but concrete scientific and medical advances.
"We need to make a real impact to society. We need to show something that can improve people’s lives," he said, citing as potential examples improvements in disease diagnostics or the development of new treatments.
"We aim to bring big breakthroughs like ChatGPT or AlphaFold, and if we can deliver these kinds of breakthroughs in protein and proteomic science, I hope the project will be persistently supported," Yang said.