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China plans leading role in ‘precision medicine’ field

By George W. Russell

China has enlisted the private sector as well as government resources in its bid to make the country a leader in “precision medicine,” a proposed model for the treatment of diseases tailored to individual patients based on their genetic makeup.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences has issued invitations to apply for funding for projects under the China Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI), a US$9.2-billion, 15-year project announced during the National People’s Congress sessions in March.

The first step will be to assemble a database of genomic data from the Chinese and international populations. A cross-disciplinary team coordinated by the Beijing Institute of Genomics will first collect genetic information from about 2,000 volunteers and aim to develop new treatment concepts, Xinhua News Agency reported.

The data will be collected and uploaded by China’s emerging biotechnology sector. “The foundation for precision medicine is genomic sequencing,” Sun Hongye, chief technology officer and head of China operations and business at Wuxi Nextcode in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, told JMSC Reporting Health & Medicine.

Wuxi Nextcode, which involved in the PMI, previously provided the database for the national genome projects in the United Kingdom and Qatar as well as the foundation for the rare disease diagnostics and research programmes at Boston Children’s Hospital in the United States and Fudan University Children’s Hospital in Shanghai.

“[We focus on] the application of sequence data to improve disease diagnosis, develop better and more targeted drugs, and to provide informed, personalized scientific wellness regimes that can help people to stay healthier longer,” Sun said.

Meanwhile, Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Company will develop cloud infrastructure to facilitate the handling of genomic data associated with the PMI.

Precision medicine is still in its early stages, experts note. “While some advances in precision medicine have been made, the practice is not currently in use for most diseases,” US National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins noted in 2015. (A PMI was launched in the US in January 2015, with a budget of US$215 million for its first year).

However, China appears determined to be move to the forefront in the field. “China is poised to play a leading role in advancing the most cutting-edge precision medicine in the world,” says Sun. “This includes population genomics, drug discovery, clinical diagnostics, and personal wellness.”

The sector has also raised ethical, social and legal issues. Many countries are expected to encounter controversies over skills and training, costs and insurance, as well as potential risks to privacy, confidentiality and matters related to informed consent.

A conference on the legal and ethical challenges of precision medicine will be held at the University of Hong Kong this week, 7-8 April, from 8:30 am to 6:00 pm at the Large Moot Court, 2/F, Cheng Yu Tung Building. It is jointly organized by the Centre for Medical Ethics & Law at HKU and the Centre for Law, Medicine and Life Sciences at the University of Cambridge in the UK.