Deep Dives

China Leaps Ahead In Precision Medicine

— China’s population of 1.4 billion — and a government willing and able to encourage the sharing of data — gives the country’s healthcare AI companies an advantage.

China is positioning itself as a global leader in precision medicine, the use of a person’s genetic information to diagnose and treat diseases. “When it comes to understanding precision medicine China has an historical advantage because Chinese herbal medicine was always tailored to the individual,” says Wen Mao, the World Economic Forum’s precision medicine project lead in China. “Now China is trying to apply this principle to many cutting edge technologies.” It is no surprise then that one of the focuses of the Forum’s new Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in China will be on advances in precision medicine. (The opening of the new center will be announced at the Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin Sept. 18–20.)

China is investing in the scientific research to deeply understand the genetics and biological make-up of people, cutting-edge data collection and analysis tools, and powerful computing capabilities to make discoveries from large quantities of data, says Genya Dana, the head of the Forum’s precision medicine project.

And precision medicine needs all three of these things to succeed. In 2016, the government earmarked $9 billion over 15 years to sequence and analyze genomes. That dwarfs the $215 million precision-medicine initiative launched in the U.S. the same year. Nearly 40 countries have their own version of a precision medicine initiative, but China’s is the largest, says Dana.

A One-Stop Shop for Health and Wellness

China’s population of 1.4 billion — and a government willing and able to encourage the sharing of data — give the country’s healthcare AI companies an advantage. Shenzhen’s Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) is already the world’s largest sequencer and repository of genetic material, the information on which many precision medicine diagnostics and treatments will be based — an example of how China is leading the way in data collection and analysis tools to understand human genetics and biology, says Dana. The third way China is leading in precision medicine is through the development of computational power and artificial intelligence programs to discover new drugs and treatments and deliver them to the right patients. For example, iCarbonX, a Chinese company founded in 2015, collects data on the genetics, environment and behavior of millions of patients and uses AI and data mining to formulate the best treatments based on a digital, holistic view of each patient. ICarbonX’s ambition is to build a consumer-facing AI platform that is a one-stop shop for all things health and wellness — from skincare and nutrition recommendations to genetic analysis — with users unlocking different functionalities based on their level of membership. At the highest tier, users would even be offered health and life insurance.

Touted as the “Google of biotech” when it was launched, iCarbonX was founded by a team that includes former employees of BGI. Jun Wang, the founder and CEO of iCarbonX, had previously co-founded BGI. In addition, the iCarbonX co-founder and chief scientist Yingrui Li also has a background at BGI, where he served as both chief scientist and CEO and continues to be a board member.

Its strong foothold in the genomics industry and a strong reputation in gene sequencing technology helped iCarbonX raise its first round of disclosed funding less than a year after launch: a $154 million Series A backed by the Chinese Internet giant Tencent Holdings, says a report from CB Insights. The report notes that the round was the largest first equity round for a healthcare AI company to date, and resulted in instant unicorn status for iCarbonX, which received a $1 billion valuation. Earlier this month the company announced the establishment of iCarbonX-Israel and the acquisition of Imagu Vision Technologies, a privately-held Israeli image understanding and artificial intelligence company.

Another startup, WuXi NextCODE, which is developing a global platform for genetic data that is used by researchers around the world, launched a partnership with Huawei in 2016 to develop the cloud computing infrastructure required to store and compute the massive amounts of data needed for precision medicine. The company is aiming to develop applications that may give doctors the ability to diagnose more prevalent illnesses with greater accuracy, and help pharmaceutical companies develop more effective treatments. To that end, it has built partnerships with many of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, including Novartis, AbbVie and Bristol- Myers Squibb, as well as medical institutions such as Boston Children’s Hospital and Peking Union Medical College Hospital, according to press reports.

A third company, Yidu Cloud, a fast-growing company that is playing an important role in precision medicine and health data-driven projects in China, specializes in Big Data analytics in healthcare. It uses AI to drive real world data research. The company has already processed the data of over 300 million patients by setting up cloud services in participating Chinese hospitals or among groups of hospitals. It works with medical research institutes to form partnerships with hospitals to use data sets for researching diseases and treatments.

Taking Stock of the Challenges

“The data is not just clinical data from diagnosis and treatment, but is full life cycle data integrated with the health information records inside and outside hospitals,” says Yu Dan, the company’s chief marketing officer.

Instead of prescribing treatments that have been developed for the average person, the dream is that we will instead take only treatments that we know will work based on who we are and how we live our lives. Instead of a one- size-fits-all approach, medicine would be tailored to you.

But there are several challenges for Chinese companies and companies elsewhere to achieve the dream of personalizing medicine, the Forum’s Dana says in a blog post. “Doctors and healthcare providers have to learn new technologies and tools to harness the latest science and complex data to understand their patients and tailor precise treatments,” she writes. “They will need the tools to communicate these complex ideas to their patients. Patients will want to know how their sensitive personal data about genetics and biology are protected and how they are being used.” Addressing these challenges and ensuring that precision medicine is available to all, and not just a privileged few, will require a great deal more work by scientists, new public-private partnerships, and collaboration with civil society, patients, industry, and policy-makers, say experts. But with high levels of funding and enormous amounts of Big Data, China is leading the way forward.

About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.