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China initiative would pour billions into precision medicine

By Pearl Liu
Staff Writer

HONG KONG – As part of an effort to step up as a precision medicine powerhouse, the Chinese government is moving forward on an initiative that would see it provide billions of dollars in funding over the next 15 years.

The Chinese government confirmed plans to make precision medicine part of its Five Year Plan for 2016-2020 as it works to prioritize genomics to drive better health care outcomes. Announcements of the plan were made during meetings during the National People's Congress, equivalent to China's congress, and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a consulting body to the government.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) recently issued detailed application guidance for projects under the China Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI), which is widely expected to be funded with ¥60 billion (US$9.2 billion) by 2030.

Precision medicine is a medical model for high-efficiency, low-cost prevention and treatment of diseases tailored to individual patients based on their genetic makeup.

In the latest example of companies looking to benefit from the PMI, Wuxi Apptec, a major biotech solutions provider, inked an agreement with Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. to develop cloud infrastructure that would facilitate the handling of the huge amounts of genomic data associated with PMI.

"Huawei, a trustworthy and secure partner, will be in charge of the hardware part, which can store and compute large-scale data, while we provide the software that can analyze these data," Sun Hongye, chief technology officer and head of China operations and business at Wuxi Nextcode, told BioWorld Today. "Precision medicine requires massive data, and we believe that cloud can perform like a high-speed road that makes all related work more efficient."

Cambridge, Mass.-based Wuxi Nextcode, a fully controlled subsidiary of Wuxi Apptec, is one of the leading genomic information companies applying sequencing data.

In turn, Huawei's cloud platform currently serves 50,000 customers across China with data centers in 15 cities. Leveraging the expertise from both sides, a cloud computing platform and genomic big data, could power a new push into the precision medicine in China, a push that aims to deliver tailored health care solutions to individual patients "on an unprecedented scale."

The project is still in the early stages and there are few details available, but Wuxi has plenty of experience in that area. It is involved in large-scale genome sequencing initiatives with many other partners, domestically as well as overseas. The company is working on the U.K.'s 100,000 Genomes Project, the Qatar Genome Project, as well as pediatric disease projects at the Children's Hospital of Fudan University and Boston Children's Hospital. The company said it plans to participate in more projects under the China PMI.

"This partnership is a win-win – for our companies and for the patients that will benefit from the vision of the China PMI," said Hannes Smarason, chief operating officer of Wuxi Nextcode. "The expertise we have developed in population-scale precision medicine in the U.K., Qatar and U.S. is directly applicable in China."

That experience includes "better diagnostics for rare disease, more targeted therapies for cancer, the integration of sequence data into routine health care, and the need for scalable, secure and powerful infrastructure to make it possible. Two remarkable characteristics of China's Precision Medicine Initiative are its scale and the exceptional early commitment of the government to make it happen swiftly. This commitment holds the promise to advance all aspects of precision medicine and turn China's world leadership in sequencing into benefits for millions of patients. "

Headed by the Beijing Institute of Genomics under the CAS, a cross-disciplinary team consisting of researchers from multiple institutes will first collect genetic information from volunteers and aim to develop new treatment concepts for complicated diseases such as metabolic disorders or cardiovascular and cerebrals diseases, according to Xinhua News Agency, the state news agency.

Comprehensive research will target some 2,000 volunteers and will involve whole genome sequence analysis, building genome sequence health profiles and early warning and intervention research for the risks and drug reactions concerning the genetic factors in key chronic diseases, diabetes and cancers.

While it has advantages thanks to its large population base, China needs to boost funding and develop a stronger and systematic regulatory environment to strengthen the system.