Stuart Plant’s report

5th Congress of Asian Pacific Society of Atherosclerosis and Vascular Diseases – Jeju Island—April 2006

With the support of the Simon Wolff Charitable Foundation I was able to head to Jeju Island off the south coast of the Korean Peninsula to attend the 5th Congress of Asian Pacific Society of Atherosclerosis and Vascular Diseases in April 2006. In my bag I had the results of nearly three years work investigating the relationship between obesity, heart disease and diabetes

I flew into Seoul with the plan to take the train down through South Korea to the southern port of Mokpo. From here I would take a ferry to Jeju Island. Having allowed plenty of time for the journey to Jeju Island I was able to take a tour to the Korean demilitarised zone that runs either side of the boarder with North Korea.

It was hard to imagine walking through the modern prosperous city of Seoul that this demilitarised zone would be anything more than a relic of the cold war, kept alive for the amusement of tourists. The reality was very different. The tension in the area is palpable and the atmosphere more than a little scary. Surprisingly large Korean guards, stand stony faced glaring across a white line at their Northern counterparts. The North Korean guards appear no less intimidating but appear rather smaller with a perceivable weariness in there rigid stance. No gestures can be made towards the north Koreans; no waving, no smiling and certainly no pointing, for fear that the North Korean authorities would spin these actions and use them as weapons in the ongoing diplomatic war between the two countries. On more than one occasion our tour guides were forced to dive onto the outstretch arms of tourists as they pointed out the interesting features that could be seen in North Korea. The volatility of the situation was further illustrated when we were shown a memorial for two American GIs who were hacked to death with axes by North Korean troops after they had tried to fell a tree that obscured their view of the border.

Such a hostile and terrifying beginning to my trip did not reflect the rest of my experience of Korea. On my journey to Jeju Island I was not to meet another native English speaker and only a hand full of Europeans (three Germans and an Italian). Despite this I was never short of company. The Koreans are a very polite, respectful people, but they certainly aren’t shy and are exceptionally friendly. Those that could, did not hesitate to try their English out on a native speaker and seemed anxious to ensure that I had the best possible impression of Korea. When I reached Jeju Island I had time to visit a local historical sight, arriving at the same time as six coach loads of teenagers on a school trip. After a few of the braver students broke the ice with a cries of Hello, nice to meet you! and I am David Beckham!, I was soon surrounded by a crowd of about 200, all firing questions and screaming when I answered. It was, I imagine, a similar experience to that of a teenybopper pop star on a walkabout with his fans. When I introduced the handshake and the shrieking crowd closed in for their turn, I don’t mind admitting that I was a little intimidated and was glad when my coach driver came to rescue me, saying that we really had to leave. My brush with stardom over, I was ready for the conference.

The venue was stunning, an enormous, circular, glass structure situated on a cliff overlooking the South China Sea. The event itself more than managed to match its surroundings, the delegates numbered in their thousands and included all the biggest names in the field from Korea, Japan and India, as well as selected invited representatives from Australia, Europe and the US. The lectures were spread between six lecture theatres on three floors, with each theatre hosting simultaneous lectures. The programme therefore required some tough decision-making and some meticulous planning to ensure that the most interesting and relevant lectures could be attended.

Once the conference began the pace was pretty relentless, lunch and dinner were served as you sat in your seat with no break in the action as you tucked into the excellent sushi that was provided. Lectures ran late into the night and were generally followed by more social events, which provided an opportunity to mingle with the other delegates and discuss the day’s topics. I found it remarkable how easy it was for a group consisting of Indian, Japanese, Korean and English delegates could discuss the complex topics of the day.

The results of my work formed part of the poster session where delegates could walk round studying our presentational posters and discussing with us both our results and their work. Again the different native tongues did not prove a barrier to scientific discussion and I was able to extract much useful information, make plans for future sharing of ideas when we returned to our laboratories and, I hope, impart some useful information to my fellow scientists. My work had focused on the functions of a newly discovered hormone called adiponectin. Adiponectin is a hormone released by the body’s fatty tissue. It has been shown to be responsible for sensitising the body to insulin, which controls the utilisation of glucose by the body. As people become obese, their fatty tissue becomes dysfunctional and fails to produce enough adiponectin; as a result the body becomes insensitive to insulin, which can lead to the development of type II diabetes. In addition it has been noted that individuals with low levels of adiponectin in their blood have an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Our research had focused on the mechanism by which adiponectin is able to protect the cardiovascular system from becoming diseased.

Before attending the conference we, at the Lipid and Diabetes Centre in New Zealand, had been struggling with how to effectively measure the adipocytokine, adiponectin, in human blood. Adiponectin exists in multiple forms in the blood and we were of the school of thought that believed that only some of these were relevant to human health. But how could one measure the levels of the relevant cytokine and ignore the others? At the conference I was able to meet with other scientists who were also interested in adiponectin, and together we were able to discuss our views on its function, its form in the blood, how best to obtain sufficient quantities for study and how we could pool resources to achieve mutual benefit. The assistance and advice of the other delegates proved invaluable to our research when I returned to New Zealand. As a relatively small group we would not have had the funds to do much of the work that we were now able to do with the assistance of our larger partners abroad.

My attendance at this conference is certainly one of the highlights of my career as a scientist and also one of my fondest memories. Korea is a beautiful country filled with the friendliest, most pleasant people I have ever met. The work that was facilitated by my trip to Korea is currently being prepared for publication in a top international journal.