Partnership Development Grant kick-starts collaborations in China

Before last summer, Mark Peterson had never worked with anyone in China. The Assistant Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation didn’t even have any professional connections there.

Six months later, he and a Chinese colleague have a finished project, a publication, and have laid the groundwork for a long-term a partnership comparing the burden of age-related disabilities and cardiometabolic disease on the US and Chinese health systems.

Dr. Mark Peterson

“I had never collaborated with anyone in China, but I had this idea to harmonize information from large data sets that I knew were already available in the US and China,” said Peterson, PhD, MS. “Given our standing (institutional) collaborations there and these available grants, it was an opportunity to reach out.”

He was among the first recipients of a Global REACH-sponsored Partnership Development grant. First introduced last year and back again this year, the awards are intended to help UMMS faculty develop new collaborative relationships with colleagues at international institutions. The $10,000 grants primarily fund travel so that new partners can meet face-to-face, build professional rapport, and explore new projects. A call for proposals is available now on the UMMS Competition Space.

Dr. Peterson’s grant helped him establish a project with Peking University’s Yaohui Zhao, a senior health economics researcher who was already working with population data and the Principal Investigator of the Chinese Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study. Comparing those data against data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and Health and Retirement Study – looking specifically at how muscle weakness in middle-aged adults predicts serious physical disabilities and cardiometabolic disease such as diabetes in later life – was Dr. Peterson’s initial idea. Establishing and quantifying the connections could help establish early-intervention programs to reduce disease rates.

“It's an enormous burden to the healthcare system because disability and diabetes are expensive problems to have, so early-interventions to prevent frailty will help reduce the onset of diabetes later in life,” Dr. Peterson said. “In this case, there was no need to collect any data. We just needed to get together and analyze it.”

The findings of their first study, correlating grip strength in middle-aged and older adults in both China and the United States with diabetes, hypoglycemia, hypertension and other cardiometabolic diseases, are set to be published soon The Journals of Gerontology A: Medical Sciences. Dr. Peterson said, and the partners are preparing external grant proposals for more in-depth comparisons.

“It’s been a really positive experience. I had no idea how quick the turnaround would be,” he said. “Right from the get-go, it was evident that my partners were on board and enthusiastic about working together.”

They used some of the funding for one of Dr. Zhao’s junior faculty members to travel to Ann Arbor last fall in conjunction with the annual University of Michigan Medical School-Peking University Health Science Center Joint Institute Symposium. Dr. Peterson is also planning to travel to Beijing to visit Peking University later this year.

“At times it can be difficult to garner external funding for new ideas. Seed grant opportunities like this Partnership Development grants can really jump-start preliminary projects and lead to much bigger things,” he said. “I’m incredibly grateful for that.”