2004-01-20 10:43:52
Biotech research takes giant leap forward
  Author: JIA HEPENG,China Business Weekly staff

Chinese biotech researchers are playing a greater role in international science projects, but the commercial viability of their research must be improved to ensure their projects are sustainable.

Chinese researchers last month launched the Human Liver Proteome Project (HLPP).

The project is being supervised by the international organization Human Proteome Organization (HUPO), said He Fuchu, HLPP chairman and vice-president of the Military Medical Academy.

Similar to the Human Genome Project (HGP), which was completed last year after 99.99 per cent of human genes were sequenced, HUPO is aimed at mapping the human proteome.

Unlike its role in HGP, in which China, as a latecomer, participated in 1 per cent of the sequencing, the country is a major player and leader in HLPP, which accounts for one-fifth of the HUPO.

"This marks a significant progression in our biotechnological research capability," said Sun Qihong, He's assistant and chairman of HLPP's antibody bank subcommittee.

During the first three-year pilot study, to be finished next year, the Chinese Government plans to invest 200 million yuan (US$24.15 million), Sun said.

The government might allocate another 2 billion yuan (US$241.5 million) between 2006 and 2010, if it is believed the project will help cure diseases such as hepatitis and liver cancer, Sun added.

In addition, Nanchang-based Jiangzhong Group, a leading Chinese Pharmaceutical firm, has invested 150 million yuan (US$18.13 million) to build the China Proteomic Centre. Construction began last month.

"Many labs participating in our programme have received government funding," Sun said.

"The HLPP project is expected to improve China's ability to be innovative in the biotech field, by training people and improving industrial techniques," said Li Qing, head of the Chinese National Centre of Biotechnological Development's Policy Department.

"At the very beginning of our project, we seriously took commercial interest into account," Sun told China Business Weekly.

Development of a huge antibody bank might result in substantial profits, Sun added.

Although approximately 10,000 antibodies are available worldwide from commercial sources, they are expensive and quite often improperly characterized.

Antibodies developed during the HLPP initiative will be offered to other projects co-ordinated by HUPO and HLPP at make-up price, said Li Ming, a member of HLPP's antibody bank lab at Guangzhou-based First Military Medical University.

Pharmaceutical firms will be permitted to commercialize the antibodies, Li said.

Despite the rosy prospects and the heavy government and corporate investments in HLPP, experts worry the poor link between pharmaceutical firms and biotech researchers in China might result in poor financial returns.

The potentially poor response by China's pharmaceutical firms is the main concern, Sun said.

Without the firms' investments and co-operation, the research and HLPP's underlying antibody project might not spawn new medicine, Sun added.

"Few pharmaceutical firms in China have maintained close contact with us," Sun said.

Antibodies are commonly used to either fight viruses or develop new medicine.

The earlier pharmaceutical firms participate in the antibody project, the better their chances will be of tracing the characteristics of newly found antibodies, Sun said.

But if they wait until all antibodies are available, they will have a more difficult time utilizing the antibodies, Sun added.

On the other hand, most Chinese biotech firms are small and financially weak, and it is hard for them to finance major research projects.

Liu Yaoming, vice-president of Jiangzhong Group, said access to the antibody bank could ensure his firm has multiple options for locating new drug targets, or for reducing the costs of developing new medicine.

But, he said, many Chinese pharmaceutical companies are unlikely to invest heavily in the antibody project, because it is only the initial stage of drug development.

That, Liu added, means there are risks.

(Business Weekly 01/20/2004 page8)

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