The future of precision medicine in China


Since US President Barack Obama unveiled the new medical research effort called Precision Medicine Initiative at early 2015, China has been finalizing plans for its own, much larger project. China’s leading institutes — including Tsinghua University, Fudan University and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences — are scrambling to set up precision-medicine centres. Sichuan University’s West China Hospital, for instance, plans to sequence 1 million human genomes itself — the same goal as the entire US initiative.

The Chinese government is expected to officially announce the initiative after it approves its next five-year plan in March. Just how much the effort will cost is unclear — but it will almost certainly be larger and more expensive than the US$215-million US initiative.

On January 9th, the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) announced its precision medicine research plan targeting Chinese people, which will spend four years colleting genetic information of 4,000 volunteers.

Genome-sequencing companies are already competing to provide services to deal with the anticipated demand. For several years, China has boasted high genome-sequencing capacity. In 2010, the genomics institute BGI in Shenzhen was estimated to host more sequencing capacity than the entire United States. This was thanks to its equipment, purchased from Illumina of San Diego, California, which at the time represented state-of-the-art technology. But Illumina has since sold upgraded machines to at least three other genomics firms — WuXi PharmaTech and Cloud Health, both in Shanghai, and the Beijing-based firm Novogene.

Francis S. Collins, the director of the US National Institutes for Health, spoke at Summer Davos in Dalian in September 2015 that someday he would like to see the United States and China cooperate more on precision medicine.

As far as I’m concerned, China will be faster than the United States at sequencing genomes and identifying mutations that are relevant to personalized medicine because China’s larger populations of patients for each disease will make it easier to find sufficient numbers to study, combined with the Chinese government’s determination to succeed. Still, it remains to be seen whether China has the resources to apply these insights to the individualized care of patients due to the dearth of doctors.

Rani Jarkas, the Chairman of Cedrus Investments.

Rani Jarkas is a highly experienced financial services executive, with over 20 years of international banking experience. Currently, Mr. Jarkas is the Chairman of Cedrus Investments, a global boutique investment firm. Cedrus’ domain expertise is in life sciences, natural resources, energy, cleantech and nanotechnology. – Rani Jarkas