The rapid development of biological imaging and gene technology has brought revolutionary changes to life science. Since the establishment of the Center for Biodynamic Optical Imaging at Peking University in 2010 (renamed As Peking University Biomedical Frontier Innovation Center in 2018), interdisciplinary scientists have been committed to developing cutting-edge biotechnology and using these technologies to solve fundamental problems in biology and medical problems that threaten people's health. The centre's research results have raised awareness of biological systems, communicable and non-communicable diseases.
Its founder, Xie Xiaoliang, a pioneer in the field of single molecular biology, reviewed the development of the Center and shared his vision for the development of single cell technology:
What prompted you to set up BIOPIC?
I started my academic career as a biophysical chemist because I enjoyed operating instruments. Physical chemistry provides tools for understanding biomolecular processes and has driven many advances in life science research. Initially, I focused on biological imaging, using single-molecule fluorescence microscopy and other tools to monitor, analyze and manipulate the activity of single molecules in living cells. These tools have transformed the way biological problems are studied: scientists can study the activity of individual molecules without disrupting the normal physiology of living organisms.
With the development of next-generation sequencing technology, scientists are able to complete genome analysis faster and at lower cost. This technological revolution in the field of biological science has brought about a new era of precision medicine. Seeing the potential of new sequencing technologies, I turned to single-cell genomics and developed the team's own sequencer. At the same time, I had the idea of establishing a center specializing in basic science and developing cutting-edge technologies in medicine. I and two other PKU alumni, Prof. Su Xiaodong and Prof. Huang Yanyi, proposed the idea to our Alma mater, and BIOPIC was officially established in 2010.
Why is BIOPIC different?
BIOPIC is a technology-driven biomedical research center that integrates basic research, technology development and clinical applications. I believe that breakthroughs in research tools and cross-disciplinary integration are critical to advancing life science research. To do this, BIOPIC brings in researchers with multidisciplinary backgrounds, including physical chemists or biophysicists like myself, as well as structural biologists, molecular biologists, and researchers working in biotechnology or engineering, mathematics, and computational sciences. Many of the breakthrough biotechnologies at the center are the result of interdisciplinary collaborations. I think BIOPIC is one of the best interdisciplinary companies in the world.
The emphasis on clinical transformation is also unique to BIOPIC. BIOPIC has many scientific research achievements published in top academic journals, but this is not the ultimate goal of the center's teachers and students. BIOPIC encourages researchers to industrialize their technologies and work with clinicians to transform them into clinical applications. BIOPIC scientists are interested in advancing basic science and also looking to use our technology for the benefit of society.
What cutting-edge technologies are BIOPIC focused on?
Originally, BIOPIC was named the Center for Biodynamic Optical Imaging based on my earlier single-molecule imaging work at Harvard University. Now the centre's research has expanded considerably. BIOPIC focuses on single-cell genomics technologies, including high-throughput sequencing, gene editing and microfluidics. Powered by big data analytics, these technologies, along with single-molecule imaging, super-resolution and unlabeled imaging, can be used to advance basic scientific research -- from genomics, genetics and molecular biology, to developmental biology, tumor immunology and bioinformatics. BIOPIC also focuses on clinical transformation of technology. BIOPIC's genome-wide amplification technology enables sequencing with high coverage and has been used for pre-implantation gene screening in embryos. BIOPIC's error-correcting sequencing, CRISPR-based sequencing, and a safe and efficient gene editing tool have been used to analyze human embryo development, stem cells and tumor microenvironment for reproductive medicine, cancer and infectious disease diagnosis and treatment.
Why are you focusing on single-cell genomics?
Single molecule technology enabled scientists to explain life processes at the molecular level, an important advance of the 20th century. Single-cell genomics is a next-generation sequencing technology that has the potential to revolutionize things even more. I believe the impact is bigger than the human Genome Project. It can help scientists explore all the DNA and RNA in a cell, map the structure and function of the genome, and answer questions such as how the genetic information carried by DNA or RNA controls cell function. This will provide new insights into fundamental life science issues and open up new possibilities for clinical applications, including prenatal genetic testing and cancer diagnosis.
To gain a foothold in this fast-growing field, China will have to develop single-cell genomics technology, including sequencing machines with proprietary intellectual property. And BIOPIC is driving just that.
How can single-cell technology pave the way for precision medicine?
Precision medicine must take into account individual differences in genes. Single-cell genomics can deepen doctors' understanding of the genetics of diseases and determine the best treatments for individuals. In cancer treatment, for example, using next-generation sequencing technology, doctors can analyze individual tumor cells and their microenvironment to identify new therapeutic targets. Recently, BIOPIC scientists have used single-cell RNA sequencing technology to reveal the dynamics of individual immune cells in liver cancer, shedding light on the development of potential treatment strategies.
In addition, BIOPIC's research team collaborated with Qiao Jie, president of Peking University Third Hospital, to improve genetic diagnosis and screening of embryos before implantation. Based on an earlier single-cell genome-wide amplification technique developed by BIOPIC, the new method has been used to select healthy embryos with high accuracy from couples known to have single-gene genetic disorders.
How does BIOPIC facilitate research transformation?
BIOPIC's goal is to translate the technology into applications. Translational research needs a healthy and smooth ecosystem, and Peking University has abundant resources and advantages in various basic fields. Clinically, PKU has affiliated hospitals; The university is also geographically close enough to the biohub of the Zhongguancun Science park, home to biotech giants such as Baekje Shenzhou, as well as many start-ups. Researchers at BIOPIC have founded six biotechnology companies, five of which are registered in Beijing. BIOPIC provides enough support and development space for scientists to dare to think and do, but also supports a close relationship between the university and the university community, so that the synergy between scientists to inspire a variety of ideas, and translate into clinical results, to serve the whole society.
What are your expectations for BIOPIC?
Our goal is to become the world's leading research institution in biomedicine, to promote original research in cutting-edge biotechnology, to develop and utilize innovative bioimaging and genetic technologies, and to provide tools for exploring fundamental life science and medical research issues at the molecular and cellular levels. I also expect BIOPIC's work to translate into technological and medical breakthroughs that will ultimately benefit society and humanity.