She is a renowned opera and folk singer. She’s a champion of education for women, particularly in rural areas of China like the one she grew up in as the daughter of a night school principal. She’s a civilian in the People’s Liberation Army, holding a rank equivalent to major general. But on Wednesday, it was her passion for improving the health of those in her country and beyond that brought Madame Peng Liyuan, the wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping, to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
Peng, a World Health Organization goodwill ambassador for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, met with Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Co-Chairs and Trustees Bill and Melinda Gates, Fred Hutch Nobel Prize–winner Dr. Linda Buck and other key researchers during the one-hour visit. Peng and her delegation also toured a lab where critical HIV vaccine research is being done.
It is her only official visit while in Seattle, the first stop during a U.S. tour culminating with her husband’s meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama later this week.
“We are honored to have Madame Peng visit Fred Hutch,” said Gilliland. “I applaud her work to improve the health of the people of China and especially her commitment to cutting the smoking rates in China, which is helping save lives. Rates of lung cancer are rising and are expected to double globally by 2030 unless preventive measures are taken.”
As first lady, Peng, 52, has led a campaign to lower smoking rates in China, where an estimated 300 million people smoke and 1 million die each year of tobacco-related causes, according to the World Health Organization. Between 2005 and 2014, the number of people older than 15 in China who smoke has dropped from 28.3 percent to 21.3 percent last year, according to CNRS-TGI survey data. In 2012, Peng and Bill Gates appeared together to promote an anti-smoking campaign in Beijing, ahead of the 25th World No-Tobacco Day.
"I cherish the opportunity to discuss with you [HIV vaccine work, cancer research, and technology to aid in stopping smoking]," said Peng through a translator. "In the future, I look forward to more opportunities to work together and contribute shared wisdom on global health challenges. ... Your contributions have given humanity a chance to live longer and better lives."
Wednesday morning, Peng heard from Fred Hutch’s Dr. Jonathan Bricker, leader of the Tobacco and Health Behavior Science Research Group at Fred Hutch, who spoke about his cutting-edge research using technology such as mobile apps in smoking cessation.
“A billion people worldwide smoke,” Bricker said. “And people who want to quit smoking on their own have only a 4 percent chance of succeeding. We want to change that. … Our team has developed the first quit-smoking app proven in a randomized trial. The app provides a step-by-step program for quitting smoking. It has a 63 percent higher quit success rate than the U.S. government's app.”
Peng noted that she has a personal interest in finding better ways to lower smoking rates because "In my own family there are some smokers, and I hope they can find better ways to quit."
Fred Hutch has been collaborating with Chinese medical researchers for decades. The combination of the country’s large population, located in highly developed urban centers as well as lower-resource rural areas, and its growing investment in biomedical research provide unique opportunities to gain insight into a variety of health issues that affect millions of individuals in China and around the world.
The Hutch's Dr. Steve Self recalled the start of a trial in Shanghai studying whether breast self-exams would reduce deaths from breast cancer. The more than 266,000 women in that trial have now been followed for more than 20 years. In the 1990s, Fred Hutch, which is home to the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, the world’s largest HIV vaccine testing program, began collaborating with Dr. Yiming Shao, the chief expert on AIDS at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, on creating a safe and effective HIV vaccine. The collaboration continues to this day.
In 2010, Fred Hutch began a formal partnership, called the China Initiative, with the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention that focuses on molecular typing of tumors and will offer insight into precision medicine.
“This is one area where when both countries work together, we can do a lot of good,” said Self, the executive director of the China Initiative and a member of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease and Public Health Sciences divisions at Fred Hutch.
Dr. Lena Yao was raised in China, came to the U.S to earn her Ph.D. and now is the Hutch’s senior project manager for China programs. She sees Peng’s visit as “huge. It’s good encouragement and validation.”
The chance to collaborate is an “amazing situation,” she said. “For us as a research institute to go there to do research is a golden opportunity. There’s a big benefit for the global community. Through the China Initiative we want to be able to make an impact on the care of human beings.”
The office of Washington state's Gov. Jay Inslee played a critical role in Wednesday's visit, having reached out to the research center to suggest Peng visit the campus to learn more first-hand about China and Fred Hutch’s collaborative efforts.
"The visit by Madame Peng shows how innovative partnerships between the U.S. and China represent a great hope for the world in ending HIV and other devastating diseases," said Kristi Heim, executive director for Washington State China Relations Council, a non-profit business association dedicated to promoting stronger commercial, educational, and cultural relations between the state of Washington and China.
Peng said she is looking forward to future ways Fred Hutch and China can combine their knowledge to further the field of medicine.
"There is a saying by George Bernard Shaw," she said, "that if I have an apple and you have an apple and we exchange apples, we still only each have one apple. But if I have an idea and you have an idea and we exchange ideas, then we each have two ideas.”
Peng is known for her dedication to keeping HIV/AIDS in the spotlight. Years before she became the WHO ambassador for tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, she developed programs to help support children orphaned by AIDS. Her involvement in raising awareness has been credited with helping chip away at the stigma in China, where an estimated 800,000 are living with HIV/AIDS, including those who don’t know they are positive.
"We believe the best way to halt the epidemic is to get a safe and effective vaccine," said Dr. Julie McElrath, senior vice president and director of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division.
Wednesday morning, as Peng walked to a lab where HIV vaccine research led by McElrath is conducted she passed poignant black and white photos of people living with AIDS — men, women and children. While China and the U.S. are a half a world apart, the devastation caused by illnesses such as HIV/AIDS and cancer is the same in both countries. And so is the commitment to make a change.
“The work we do together as global citizens can have a direct impact not only on people in the U.S. and China, but on the lives of everyone around the world,” said Gilliland.
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Deputy Editor Andrea Detter contributed to this report.
Linda Dahlstrom is a former Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center editor. Previously, she was the health editor for NBC News Digital and msnbc.com. She also worked at several newspapers during her 25-year career as a journalist covering AIDS, cancer, end-of-life issues and global health.