When Jianhong Zhu treated a patient with a chopstick lodged in his brain, not an uncommon injury in China, the culinary implement ultimately helped repair the damage it had caused.
Pulling out the offending object, the Harvard-trained doctor saw fresh brain tissue and decided to culture it in the laboratory and transplant it into the patient.
It was the start of a breakthrough in treating nerve damage and a sign that China is set to become the leader in the field of stem cell research, a field that could in the future help ailments as diverse as paralysis and incontinence.
Jianhong has treated eight brain-damaged patients with their own cells and has reported remarkable results. The results were compared with brain-damaged patients with no open wounds -- who cannot be treated this way because there is no easy way to get the brain cells -- to demonstrate that implanting the stem cells increased the movement and response of patients.
The results are not published in any academic journal, which normally produces scepticism about such claims.
But his technique amazed British scientists who visited his lab last September, as part of a UK Department of Trade and Industry (DIT) mission to learn about stem cell research in the far east.
In a report to be published today by the ministry, the science taking place in China, Singapore and South Korea is described as world-leading.
"They are at, or approaching, the forefront of international stem cell research,'' the report stated.
Jianhong was to discuss his work, along with other Chinese and British scientists at a conference in London yesterday organized by the DTI.
"During our 14-day visit to China, Singapore and South Korea, we encountered some of the best equipped laboratories, most industrious research teams and most adventurous clinical programs that any of us had ever experienced,'' wrote Jack Price of the Institute of Psychiatry, in the DTI report.
The analysis picked up on how Chinese scientists are keener to apply stem cell research to treating patients. A British company, ReNeuron, is one of the nearest to bringing the technique to stroke patients to treat paralysis, but trials are still about a year away.
Britain has been a leader in the area for years, with the US hampered by the Christian right's views on using stem cells from aborted foetuses. However certain states in the US, including California, New Jersey, Illinois and Wisconsin, have now pledged billions to the area in order to catch up.
In Britain scientists are worried that the funding could soon dry up, after the government committed US$84.7 million over three years in 2002. Lord Sainsbury, science minister at the DTI, said on Sunday that the UK should be motivated to remain the leader in research by the progress in the East.
"Providing funding for research remains at the top of our priorities,'' he said.
China has been supported by substantial grants from national and regional government, funding laboratories and luring Chinese scientists in Western labs with competitive salaries. It is now the world's third largest spender on research and development, behind the US and Japan.
Stem cell researchers in the US will reveal this week that the human embryonic cells available to most of them are contaminated and probably useless for medical treatments.