The Melbourne stem-cell expert 'bridging ties' between Australia and China

Dr Yijia Li, the winner of 2019 Advance Awards, Asia Impact

Dr Yijia Li, the winner of 2019 Advance Awards, Asia Impact

Dr Yijia Li hopes that his efforts in the field of stem cell therapy will lead to effective treatments for people living with pain.

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Dr Yijia Li is a biotech expert who wishes to build a bridge between Australian and China through his complex work with stem cells.

The Melbourne-based biologist and economist, who specialises in stem cell research, set up a 3200 sq metre translational research facility in 2015, which is the only stem cell bank in China’s Yunnan province.

His work in bridging biotechnology collaboration between Australia and China saw him recognised at the 2019 Advance Awards, where he took out the Asia Impact category.

Dr Li has always been a straight-A student.

He was the winner of China’s Biology Olympiad and gained admission to one of China’s top-ranking educational establishments, Tsinghua University, in Beijing.  

He graduated from the university in 2009 as a distinguished student majoring in Biology, before receiving a double degree in Economics at Peking University.

During his studies at Tsinghua University, he participated in an exchange program with the University of Melbourne and decided to stay.

“I always want to learn neuroscience. The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health ranks second in the world. Besides, Melbourne has a better academic environment, you can only spend three and a half years to obtain the doctoral degree,” Dr Li tells SBS Mandarin.

“My plan was graduating from the PhD then doing the transmission research, then Melbourne’s duration is shorter than the US.”

In 2013, Dr Li received The Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Melbourne.

Following his PhD, he joined the Shunxi-Monash University Joint Lab, and participated and facilitated several translational projects, before travelling back to China to open the Yunnan Province Stem Cell Bank.

“My thought is simple. I would like to do something that can be transformed [to manufacturing]. That’s why I didn’t stay in academia.”

Throughout his professional career, Dr Li has been keen to form a bridge between the Australia and China research communities. This yearning saw him collaborate with Professor Alan Trounson, known as one of the world’s top 10 stem cell scientists, by investing in his company Cartherics, which is carrying out a pioneer CAR-T research to treat the solid tumour.

Although building the stem cell bank was the starting point for Dr Li's success, his ambition lies in “more interesting work” – developing stem cell drugs. 

In 2018, Dr Li joined the Tsinghua University Yangtze Delta Research Institute and became the founder and director of the stem cell drug translational research platform, which is developing stem cell therapy for knee osteoarthritis, stroke, chronic kidney disease, and Crohn’s disease.

The company is aiming to develop its first drug in five years.

Despite his successes, Dr Li’s career hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

His says his main challenge is to overcome the clash of business cultures between Australia and China.

"The cultural challenges are particularly significant. Foreigners consider the agreement and everything beforehand, while Chinese people sign the agreement easily, but they always make changes afterwards,” he says.

“As the coordinator, I have to do a lot of communication between the two sides."

Dr Li admits that cultural gaps are hard to bridge and that the China-US trade war has had an impact on his work.

"It will last at least five or ten years. This is a strategic confrontation, it is not a simple trade conflict," he says.

Though the international environment is not as smooth as he would like it to be, Dr Li remains firm in introducing Australia's advanced biomedical technology to China.

"From our micro perspective, [Australia and China] are still highly complementary, especially in the field of biomedicine.

"There are a lot of Australian biomedical technology companies that we are interested in and they have good technologies. We want to bring the technologies to China. Some Chinese hospitals and other institutions are also satisfied with Australian technologies.

“The Yangtze Delta Research Institute is also looking at how we can bring more Australian biotechnologies to China and incubate them in Shanghai and Hangzhou."