Imagine you are diagnosed with cancer. In many countries, between 40 and 50% of people will receive this news at some point in their lifetime. Now imagine that your doctor also tells you that they have a test that can look at your genes to help determine which cancer drug will work best for you. This is precision medicine: using a person’s genetic information along with information on environment and behaviour to diagnose and treat diseases.
Precision medicine can improve people’s health and wellbeing by prescribing therapies that have a higher chance of being effective. Precision medicine can also help save money, as doctors and hospitals can avoid prescribing drugs and treatments that do not work and identifying quickly the right treatment.
China is poised as a global leader in precision medicine and the Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies that power it. It 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. Precision medicine needs all three of these things to succeed.
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In 2016, China announced precision medicine as part of its five-year plan, with an expected investments of 60 billion yuan (or more than $9 billion) for research. Nearly 40 countries have their own version of a precision medicine initiative, but, China’s is the largest. The United States Precision Medicine Initiative started at $215 million in 2016. For every $1 the United States plans to spend on its Initiative, China is spending $43.
China is leading the way in data collection and analysis tools to understand human genetics and biology. The Beijing Genome Institute is the world’s largest sequencer and repository of genetic material – the DNA code that makes each of us unique individuals. Genetic data is the information on which many precision medicine diagnostics and treatments will be based. The China National GeneBank in Shenzhen, operated by the Beijing Genome Institute, has over 500 million genetic sequences of over 8,000 species stored in more than 40 databases, as of early 2017.
The third way China leads is through the development of computational power and artificial intelligence programmes to discover new drugs and treatments and deliver them to the right patients. For example, iCarbonX is a Chinese company founded in 2015 that collects data on the genetics, environment, and behaviour of millions of patients and uses artificial intelligence and data mining to formulate the best treatments based on a digital, holistic view of each patient.
Wuxi Nextcode and Huawei launched a new partnership in 2016 to develop the cloud computing infrastructure required to store and compute the massive amounts of data needed for precision medicine. These are just some of the companies utilizing other Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies to advance the precision medicine programme.
Precision medicine can transform the way we think about health and healthcare. 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 to achieving this dream. Doctors and healthcare providers will have to learn new technologies and tools to harness the latest science and complex data to understand their patients and tailor precise treatments. 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.
Finally, there is still much we do not understand about how the body works and how our genetics and biology affects disease. Untangling these secrets and addressing these challenges requires a great deal more work by scientists, new public private partnerships, and collaboration with civil society, patients, industry, and policy-makers.