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  • Many people still view China as a ‘copycat’ economy, but this is rapidly changing
  • China is:
    • Pursuing a multi-billion dollar-15 year strategy to become a world leader in genomic engineering and personalized medicine
    • Systematically upgrading and incentivizing its large and growing pool of scientists who are making important breakthroughs in the life sciences
    • Empowering and encouraging state owned and private life science companies to own and control the capacity to transform genomic, clinical and personal data into personalized medicines
  • The difference in national approaches to individualism and privacy confers an added competitive advantage to China and its life science ambitions
  • China’s approach to individualism and privacy issues could have implications for society


The global competition to translate genomic data into personal medical therapies

 

PART 2
 
China is no longer a low cost ‘copycat’ economy. Indeed, it has bold plans to become a preeminent global force in genomic engineering to prevent and manage devastating and costly diseases. Here we briefly describe aspects of China’s multibillion-dollar, government-backed initiative, to own and control significant capacity to transform genomic data into precision medicines. This is not only a ‘numbers’ game. China’s drive to achieve its life science ambitions is also advantaged by a different approach to ‘individualism’ and privacy compared to that of the US; and this could have far-reaching implications for future civilizations.

Uneven playing field
Genomic engineering and precision medicine have the potential to revolutionize how we prevent and treat intractable diseases. Who owns the intellectual property associated with genomic engineering, and who first exploits it, will reap significant commercial benefits in the future. However, genomic technologies are not like any other. This is because genetically modifying human genomes could trigger genetic changes across future generations. Misuse of such technologies therefore could result in serious harm for individuals and their families. On the other hand, over regulation of genomic engineering could slow or even derail the prevention and treatment of devastating and costly diseases. Establishing a balance, which supports measures to mitigate misuse of genomic technologies while allowing the advancement of precision medicine is critical. However, this has proven difficult to establish internationally.

Chinese scientists have crossed an ethical line
Chinese culture interprets individualism and privacy differently to American culture, and therefore China responds differently to certain ethical standards compared to the US and some other Western nations. Indeed, national differences were ignited in 2012 when Chinese researchers published their findings of the world’s first endeavors to modify the genomes of human embryos to confer genetic resistance to certain diseases. Because such modifications are heritable critics argued that the Chinese scientists crossed a significant ethical line, and this was the start of a “slippery slope”, which could eventually lead to the creation of a two-tiered society, with elite citizens genetically engineered to be smarter, healthier and to live longer, and an underclass of biologically run-of-the-mill human beings.

International code of conduct called for but not adhered to
2 prominent scientific journals, Nature and Science, rejected the Chinese research papers reporting world-first scientific breakthroughs on ethical grounds. Subsequently, Nature published a note calling for a global moratorium on the genetic modification of human embryos, suggesting that there are “grave concerns” about the ethics and safety of the technology. 40 countries have banned genetically modifying human embryos. In 2016, a report from the UK’s Nuffield Council on Bioethics stressed the importance of an internationally agreed ethical code of conduct before genomic engineering develops further.
 
In 2017 an influential US science advisory group formed by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine gave ‘lukewarm’ support to the modification of human embryos to prevent, “serious diseases and disabilities” in cases only where there are no other “reasonable alternatives”. The French oppose genomic modification, the Dutch and the Swedes support it, and a recent Nature editorial suggested that the EU is, “habitually paralyzed whenever genetic modification is discussed”. In the meantime, clinical studies, which involve genomic engineering, are advancing at a pace in China.

With regard to genome testing, western human rights activists have warned that China is targeting vulnerable groups and minorities to help build vast genomic databases without appropriate protection for individuals. Those include migrant workers, political dissidents and ethnic or religious minorities such as the Muslim Uighurs in China's far western Xinjiang region. Xinjiang authorities are reported to have invested some US$10bn in advanced sequencing equipment to enhance the collection and indexing of these data.


Different national interpretations of ‘individualism’
Individualism’, which is at the core of ethical considerations of genomic engineering, is challenging to define because of its different cultural, political and social interpretations. For example, following the French Revolution, individualisme was used pejoratively in France to signify the sources of social dissolution and anarchy, and the elevation of individual interests above those of the collective. The contemporary Chinese interpretation of individualism is similar to the early 19th century French interpretation. It does not stress a person’s uniqueness and separation from the State, but emphasizes an individual’s social; contract and harmony with the State. By contrast, American individualism is perceived as an inalienable natural right of all citizens, and independent of the State.

Further, American individuals are actively encouraged to challenge and influence the government and its regulatory bodies, whereas in China citizens are expected to unquestionably support the State. China is a one party state, where individuals generally accept that their government and its leaders represent their higher interests, and most citizens therefore accept the fact that they are not expected to challenge and influence policies determined by the State and its leaders. This difference provides China with a significant competitive advantage in its endeavors to become a world leader in the life sciences,

 
Human capital

By 2025, some 2bn human genomes could be sequenced. This not only presents ethical challenges, but also significant human capital challenges. The development of personalized medicines is predicated upon the ability to aggregate and process vast amounts of individual genomic, physiological, health, environmental and lifestyle data. This requires next generation sequencing technologies, smart AI systems, and advanced data managers of which there is a global shortage. Thus, the cultivation and recruitment of appropriate human capital is central to competing within the rapidly evolving international genomic engineering marketplace. The fact that China has a more efficacious strategy to achieve this than the US and other Western democracies provides it with another significant competitive advantage.

STEM graduates
Since the turn of the century, China has been engaged in a silent revolution to substantially increase its pool of graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), while the pool of such graduates in the US and other Western democracies has been shrinking. In 2016, China was building the equivalent of almost one university a week, which has resulted in a significant shift in the world's population of STEM graduates. According to the World Economic Forumin 2016, the number of people graduating in China and India were respectively 4.7m and 2.6m, while in the US only 568,000 graduated. In 2013, 40% of all Chinese graduates finished a degree in STEM, over twice the share of that in US universities. In 2016, India had the most graduates of any country worldwide with 78m, China followed closely with 77.7m, and the US came third with 67m graduates.

University education thriving in China and struggling in the West
In addition to China being ahead of both the US and Europe in producing STEM graduates; the gap behind the top 2 countries and the US is widening. Projections suggest that by 2030 the number of 25 to 34-year-old graduates in China will increase by a further 300%, compared with an expected rise of around 30% in the US and Europe. In the US students have been struggling to afford university fees, and most European countries have put a brake on expanding their universities by either not making public investments or restricting universities to raise money themselves.
 

The increasing impact of Chinese life sciences
China's rapid expansion in STEM graduates suggests that the future might be different to the past. Today, China has more graduate researchers than any other country, and it is rapidly catching up with the US in the number of scientific papers published. The first published papers to describe genetic modifications of human embryos came from Chinese scientists

Further, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization, domestic patent applications inside China have soared from zero at the start of the 21st century to some 928,000 in 2014: 40% more than the US’s 579,000, and almost 3 times that of Japan’s 326,000.
 

China’s strategy to reverse the brain drain
Complementing China’s prioritization of domestic STEM education is its “Qianren Jihua” (Thousand Talents) strategy. This, established in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis to reverse China’s brain drain, trawls the world to seek and attract highly skilled human capital to China by offering them incentives. Qianren Jihua’s objective is to encourage STEM qualified Chinese ex patriots to return to China, and encourage those who already reside in China to stay, and together help create an internationally competitive university sector by increasing the production of world-class research to support China’s plans to dominate precision medicine and life sciences.
 
Government commitment

In 2016, China announced plans for a multi-billion dollar project to enhance its competitiveness by becoming a global leader in molecular science and genomics. China is committed to supporting at least three principal institutions, including the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), to sequence the genomes of many millions.
 
In addition to investments at home, China also is investing in centers similar to that of BGI abroad. Over the past 2 years China has invested more than US$110bn on technology M&A deals, which it justifies by suggesting that emerging technologies are, “the main battlefields of the economy”. Early in 2017 BGI announced the launch of a US Innovation Center, co-located in Seattle and San Jose. The Seattle organization is focused on precision medicine and includes collaborations with the University of Washington, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The San Jose facility, where BGI already has a laboratory employing over 100, supports its ambitions to develop next-generation sequencing technologies, which until now have been dominated by the US sequencing company Illumina.


Changing structure of China’s economy
Some suggest that China’s rise on the world life sciences stage will be short lived because the nation is in the midst of a challenging transition to a slower-growing, consumption-driven economy, and therefore will not be able to sustain such levels of investment; and this will dent its ambition to become a global player in genomic science. An alternative argument suggests slower growth forces China to act smarter, and this is what drives its precision medicine ambitions.

Between 1985 and 2015, China’s annual GDP rose, on average, by 9.4%. Fuelling this growth was a steady supply of workers entering the labour force and massive government led infrastructure investments. Now, because of China’s ageing population, its labour capacity has peaked and started to decline. Without labour force expansion, and investment constrained by debt, China is obliged to rely more heavily on innovation to improve its productivity. And this drives, rather than slows, China’s strategy to become a world leader in genomic technologies and personalized medicine.
 

China’s economic growth is slowing, but its production of scientific research is growing
Although China’s economy is slowing, it is still comparatively large. In 2000, China spent as much on R&D as France; now it invests more in genomics than the EU, when adjusted for the purchasing power of its currency. Today, China produces more research articles than any other nation, apart from the US, and its authors’ feature on around 20% of the world’s most-cited peer reviewed papers. Top Chinese scientific institutions are breaking into lists of the world’s best, and the nation has created some unparalleled research facilities. Even now, every 16 weeks China produces a Greece-size economy, and doubles the entire size of its economy every 7 years. Today, China has an economy similar in size to that of the US, and most projections suggest that, over the next 2 decades, China’s economy will dwarf that of the US.
 
Takeaways

China is cloning its successful strategy to own and control significant mineral and mining rights to the life sciences. Over the past 20 years China has actively pursued mining deals in different global geographies, and now controls significant mining rights and mineral assets in Africa and a few other countries. This allows China to affect the aggregate supply and world market prices of certain natural resources. Now, China is cloning this commercially successful strategy to the life sciences, and has empowered and encouraged a number of state owned and private companies to own and control genomic engineering and precision medicine. China’s single-minded determination to become a world leader in life sciences, and its interpretation of individualism and privacy issues could have far reaching implications for the future of humanity.
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  • In 2003 the US first discovered the genome and became the preeminent nation in genomics
  • This could change
  • World power and influence have moved East
  • China has invested heavily in genomic technologies and established itself as a significant competitive force in precision medicine
  • Ownership of intellectual property and knowhow is key to driving national wealth 
 

The global competition to translate genomic data into personal medical therapies

 

PART 1

Professor Dame Sally Davies, England’s Chief Medical Officer, is right. (Genomics) “has the potential to change medicine forever. . . . The age of precision medicine is now, and the NHS must act fast to keep its place at the forefront of global science.”
 
It is doubtful whether the UK will be able to maintain its place as a global frontrunner in genomics and personalized medicine. It is even doubtful whether the US, the first nation to discover the genome, and which became preeminent in genomic research, will be able to maintain its position. China, with its well-funded strategy to become the world’s leader in genomics and targeted therapies, is likely to usurp the UK and the US in the next decade.
 
This Commentary is in 2 parts. Part 1 provides a brief description of the global scientific competition between nation states to turn genomic data into medical benefits. China’s rise, which is described, could have significant implications for the future ownership of medical innovations, data protection, and bio-security. Part 2, which follows in 2 weeks, describes some of the ethical, privacy, human capital and economic challenges associated with transforming genomic data into effective personal therapies.
  
Turning genomic data into medical benefits
 
Turning genomic data into medical benefits is very demanding. It requires a committed government willing and able to spend billions, a deep understanding of the relationship between genes and physiological traits, next generation sequencing technologies, artificial intelligence (AI) systems to identify patterns in petabytes (1 petabyte is equivalent to 1m gigabytes) of complex data, world-class bio-informaticians, who are in short supply; comprehensive and sophisticated bio depositories, a living bio bank, a secure data center, digitization synthesis and editing platforms, and petabytes of both genomic, clinical, and personal data. Before describing how the UK, US and China are endeavoring to transform genomic data into personal medicine, let us refresh our understanding of genomics.

  
Genomics, the Human Genomic Project and epigenetics
 
It is widely understood that your genes are responsible for passing specific features or diseases from one generation to the next via DNA, and genetics is the study of the way this is done. However, it is less widely known that your genes are influenced by environmental and other factors. Scientists have demonstrated that inherited genes are not static, and lifestyles and environmental factors can precipitate a chemical reaction within your body that could permanently alter the way your genes react. This environmentally triggered gene expression, or epigenetic imprint, can be bad, such as a disease; or good, such as a tolerant predisposition. Epigenetics is still developing as an area of research, but it has demonstrated that preventing and managing disease is as much to do with lifestyles and the environment, as it is to do with inherited genes and drugs. If environmental exposure can trigger a chemical change in your genes that results in the onset of disease, then scientists might be able to pharmacologically manipulate the same mechanisms in order to reverse the disease.
 
DNA is constantly subject to mutations, which can lead to missing or malformed proteins, and that can lead to disease. You all start your lives with some mutations, which are inherited from your parents, and are called germ-line mutations. However, you can also acquire mutations during your lifetime. Some happen during cell division, when DNA gets duplicated, other mutations are caused when environmental factors including, UV radiation, chemicals, and viruses damage DNA.

You have a complete set of genes in almost every healthy cell in your body. One set of all these genes, (plus the DNA between them), is called a genome. The genome is the collection of 20,000 genes, including 3.2bn letters of DNA, which make up an individual. We all share about 99.8% of the genome. The secrets of your individuality, and also of the diseases you are prone to, lie in the other 0.2%, which is about 3 or 4m letters of DNA. The genome is known as ‘the blueprint’ of life’, and genomics is the study of the whole genome, and how it works. Whole genome sequencing (WGS) is the process of determining the complete DNA sequence of an organism's genome at a point in time.
 
‘The Human Genome Project’ officially began in 1990 as an international research effort to determine a complete and accurate sequence of the 3bn DNA base pairs, which make up the human genome, and to find all of the estimated 20 to 25,000 human genes. The project was completed in April 2003. This first sequencing of the human genome took 13 years and cost some US$3bn. Today, it takes a couple of days to sequence a genome, and costs range from US$260 for targeted sequencing to some US$4,000 for WGS. Despite the rapidly improving capacity to read, sequence and edit the information contained in the human genome, we still do not understand most of the genome’s functions and how they impact our physiology and health.

 
Roger Kornberg explains the importance of genomics
 
Roger Kornberg, Professor of Structural Biology at Stanford University, and 2006 Nobel Laureate for Chemistry, explains the significance of sequencing the human genome, “The determination of the human genome sequence and the associated activity called genomics; and the purposes for which they may be put for medical uses, takes several forms. The knowledge of the sequence enables us to identify every component of the body responsible for all of the processes of life. In particular, to identify any component that is either defective or whose activity we may adjust to address a problem or a condition. So the human genome sequence makes available to us the entire array of potential targets for drug development. . . . . The second way in which the sequence and the associated science of genomics play an important role is in regard to individual variations. Not every human genome sequence is the same. There is a wide variation, which in the first instance is manifest in our different appearances and capabilities. But it goes far deeper because it is also reflected in our different responses to invasion by microorganisms, to the development of cancer and to our susceptibility to disease in general. It will ultimately be possible, by analyzing individual genome sequences to construct a profile of such susceptibilities for every individual, a profile of the response to pharmaceuticals for every individual, and thus to tailor medicines to the needs of individuals.” See video below.
 
 
UK’s endeavors to transform genomic data into personal therapies

In 2013 the UK government set up Genomics England, a company charged with sequencing 100,000 whole genomes by 2017. In 2014, the government announced a £78m deal with Illumina, a US sequencing company, to provide Genomics England with next generation whole genome sequencing services. At the same time the Wellcome Trust invested £27m in a state-of-the-art sequencing hub to enable Genomics England to become part of the Wellcome Trust’s Genome Campus in Hinxton, near Cambridge, England. In 2015, the UK government pledged £215m to Genomics England.
 
DNA testing and cancer
DNA sequencing is simply the process of reading the code that is in any organism . . . It’s essentially a technology that allows us to extract DNA from a cell, or many cells, pass it through a sophisticated machine and read out the sequence for that organism or individual,” says David Bowtell, Professor and Head of the Cancer Genomics and Genetics Program at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Melbourne, Australia; see video below. “DNA testing has becomeincreasingly widespread because advances in technology have made the opportunity to sequence the DNA of individuals affordable and rapid  . . . DNA testing in the context of cancer can be useful to identify a genetic risk of cancer, and to help clinicians make therapeutic decisions for someone who has cancer,” says Bowtell, see video below.
 

What is DNA sequencing?


What are the advanteges of a person having a DNA test?

Need for National Genome Board
Despite significant investments by the UK government, Professor Davies, England’s Chief Medical Officer, complained in her 2017 Annual Report that genomic testing in the UK is like a “cottage industry” and recommended setting up a new National Genome Board tasked with making whole genome sequencing (WGS) standard practice in the NHS across cancer care, as well as some other areas of medicine, within the next 5 years.
 
USA’s endeavors to transform genomic data into personal therapies

In early 2015 President Obama announced plans to launch a $215m public-private precision medicine initiative, which involved the health records and DNA of 1m people, to leverage advances in genomics with the intention of accelerating biomedical discoveries in the hope of yielding more personalized medical treatments for patients. A White House spokesperson described this as “a game changer that holds the potential to revolutionize how we approach health in the US and around the world.
 

Data management challenges
The American plan did not seek to create a single bio-bank, but instead chose a distributive approach that combines data from over 200 large on-going health studies, which together involves some 2m people. The ability of computer systems or software to exchange and make use of information stored in such diverse medical records, and numerous gene databases presents a significant challenge for the US plan. According to Bowtell, “Data sharing is widespread in an ethically appropriate way between research institutions and clinical groups. The main obstacles to more effective sharing of information are the very substantial informatics challenges. Often health systems have their own particular ways of coding information, which are not cross compatible between different jurisdictions. Hospitals are limited in their ability to capture information because it takes time and effort. Often information that could be useful to researchers, and ultimately to patients, is lost, just because the data are not being systematically collected.” See video below.
 
 
 
China’s endeavors to transform genomic data into personal therapies

In 2016, the Chinese government launched a US$9bn-15-year endeavor aimed at turning China into a global scientific leader by harnessing computing and AI technologies for interpreting genomic and health data.  This positions China to eclipse similar UK and US initiatives.
 

Virtuous circle
Transforming genomic data to medical therapies is more than a numbers race. Chinese scientists are gaining access to ever growing amounts of human genomic data, and developing the machine-learning capabilities required to transform these data into sophisticated diagnostics and therapeutics, which are expected to drive the economy of the future.  The more genomic data a nation has the better its potential clinical outcomes. The better a nation’s clinical outcomes the more data a nation can collect. The more data a nation collects the more talent a nation attracts. The more talent a nation attracts the better its clinical outcomes.
 

The Beijing Genomics Institute
In 2010 China became the global leader in DNA sequencing because of one company: the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), which was created in 1999 as a non-governmental independent research institute, then affiliated to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in order to participate in the Human Genome Project as China's representative. In 2010, BGI received US$1.5bn from the China Development Bank, and established branches in the US and Europe. In 2011 BGI employed 4,000 scientists and technicians. While BGI has had a chequered history, today it is one of the world’s most comprehensive and sophisticated bio depositories.

The China National GeneBank
In 2016 BGI-Shenzhen established the China National GeneBank (CNGB) on a 47,500sq.m site. This is the first national gene bank to integrate a large-scale bio-repository and a genomic database, with a goal of enabling breakthroughs in human health research. The gene-bank is supported by BGI’s high-throughput sequencing and bio-informatics capacity, and will not only provide a repository for biological collection, but more importantly, it is expected to develop a novel platform to further understand genomic mechanisms of life. During the first phase of its development the CNGB will have saved more than 10m bio-samples, and have storage capacity for 20 petabytes (20m gigabytes) of data, which are expected to increase to 500 petabytes in the second phase of its development. The CNGB represents the new generation of a genetic resource repository, bioinformatics database, knowledge database and a tool library, “to systematically store, read, understand, write, and apply genetic data,” says Mei Yonghong, its Director.

Whole-genome sequencing for $100
The CNGB could also help to bring down the cost of genomic sequencing. It is currently possible to sequence an individual's entire genome for under US$1,000, but the CNGB aims to reduce the price to US$152. Meanwhile, researchers at Complete Genomicsa US company acquired by BGI in 2013, which has developed and commercialized a DNA sequencing platform for human genome sequencing and analysis, are pushing the technology further to enable whole-genome sequencing for US$100 per sample. China's share of the world's sequencing-capacity is estimated to be between 20% and 30%, which is lower than when BGI was in its heyday, but expected to increase fast. “Sequencing capacity is rising rapidly everywhere, but it's rising more rapidly in China than anywhere else,” says Richard Daly, CEO, DNAnexus, a US company, which supplies cloud platforms for large-scale genomics data.

The intersection of genomics and AI
Making sense of 1m human genomes is a major challenge, says Professor Jian Wang, former BGI President and co-founder, who has started another company called iCarbonX. Also based in Shenzhen, the company is at the intersection of genomics and AI. iCarbonX has raised more than US$600m, and plans to collect genomic data from more than 1m people, and complement these data with other biological information including changes in levels of proteins and metabolites. This is expected to allow iCarbonX to develop a new digital ecosystem, comprised of billions of connections between huge amounts of individuals’ biological, medical, behavioural and psychological data in order to understand how their genes interact and mutate, how diseases and aging manifest themselves in cells over time, how everyday lifestyle choices affect morbidity, and how these personal susceptibilities play a role in a wide range of treatments.

iCarbonX is expected to gather data from brain imaging, biosensors, and smart toilets, which will allow real-time monitoring of urine and faeces. The Company’s goal is to be able to study the evolution of our genome as we age and design personalized health predictions such as susceptibilities to diseases and tailored treatment options. iCarbonX’s endeavours are expected to dwarf efforts by other US Internet giants at the intersection of genomics and AI.

 
Ethical challenges

China’s single-minded objective to turn its knowhow and experience of genome sequencing into personal targeted medical therapies has made it a significant global competitive force in life sciences. However, precision medicine’s potential to revolutionize advances in how we treat diseases confers on it moral and ethical obligations. For personal therapies to be effective, it is important that genomic data are complemented with clinical and other personal data. This combination of data is as personal as personal information gets. There could be potential harm to the tested individual and family if genomic information from testing is misused. Reconciling therapy and privacy is important, because privacy issues concerning patients' genomic data can slow or derail the progression of novel personal therapies to prevent and manage intractable diseases. The stakes are high in terms of biosecurity, as genomic research is both therapeutic and a strategic element of national security. While it is crucial to leverage genomic data for future health, economic and biodefense capital, these data will also have to be appropriately managed and protected. Part 2 of this Commentary dives into these challenges a little deeper, and describes some of China’s competitive advantages in the race to become the world’s preeminent nation in genomics and precision medicine. 
 
Takeaways

Despite the endeavours of the UK and US to remain at the forefront of the international competition to transform genomic data into personalized medical therapies for some of the worlds most common and intractable diseases, it seems reasonable to assume that China is on the cusp of becoming the most dominant nation in novel personalized treatments. Notwithstanding, China’s determination to assume the global frontrunner position in genomic science might have blunted its concerns for some of the ethical issues, which surround the life sciences. To the extent that this might be the case the future of humanity might well differ significantly from the generally accepted western vision. 
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