China biotech makes big data a weapon in its war on cancer
Nisa Leung was pregnant with her first child in 2012, her doctor in Hong Kong offered her a choice. She could take a prenatal test that would require inserting a needle into her uterus, or pay $130 more for an exam that would draw a little blood from her arm.
Leung opted for the simpler and less risky test, which analyzed bits of the baby's DNA that had made its way into her bloodstream. Then, Leung went on to do what she often does when she recognizes a good product: look around for companies to invest in.
Leung is the managing partner at Qiming Venture Partners and decided to put money into Chinese mainland genetic testing firm Berry Genomics Co Ltd, which eventually entered into a partnership with the Hong Kong-based inventor of the blood test. In the next few months, Berry is expected to be absorbed into a developer in a 4.3 billion yuan ($625 million) reverse merger. And Leung's venture capital firm would be the latest to benefit from a boom in so-called precision medicine, an emerging field that includes everything from genetic prenatal tests to customizing treatments for cancer patients.
China has made the precision medicine field a focus of its 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20), and its companies have been embarking on ambitious efforts to collect a vast trove of genetic and health data, researching how to identify cancer markers in blood, and launching consumer technologies that aim to tap potentially lifesaving information. The push offers insight into China's growing ambitions in science and biotechnology areas where it has traditionally lagged developed nations like the United States.
"Investing in precision medicine is definitely the trend," said Leung, who has led investments in more than 60 Chinese healthcare companies in the past decade.
"As China eyes becoming a biotechnology powerhouse globally, this is an area we will venture into for sure and hopefully be at the forefront globally."
New Chinese firms such as iCarbonX and WuXi NextCode that offer consumers ways to learn more about their bodies through clues from their genetic makeup are gaining popularity. Chinese entrepreneurs and scientists are also aiming to dominate the market for complex new procedures like liquid biopsy tests, which would allow for cancer testing through key indicators in the blood.
Such research efforts are still in early stages worldwide. But doctors see a future beyond basic commercial applications, aiming instead for drugs and treatment plans tailored to a person's unique genetic code and environmental exposure, such as diet and infections.
Isaac Kohane, a bioinformatics professor at Harvard University, says when it comes to precision medicine, the scientific community has "Google maps envy." Just as the search engine has transformed the notion of geography by adding restaurants, weather and other locaters, more details on patients can give doctors a better picture on how to treat diseases.