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China’s using artificial intelligence to lead in the biotech space

China’s using artificial intelligence to lead in the biotech space
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Image – Genomic Knowledge Base – courtesy WUXI NextCODE

By Charles F. Moreira, Editor

China aims to take the lead in AI (artificial intelligence) and biotech development according to an article in Axios.com on 3 December 2018, by Eleonore Pauwels, a research fellow on emerging cyber-technologies at UN University’s Centre for Policy Research, focusing on AI.

These innovations will include clinical applications of gene-editing and cell therapies, as well as blood-based cancer diagnostics.

The recent years have seen the rise in the use of gene editing and cell-engineering technologies to fight rare diseases, cancer and a number of other serious conditions. The US Food and Drug Administration has also approved therapies known as CAR-T (chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy), from  Novartis and Gilead/Kite Pharma in 2017, which re-engineer patients’ own immune cells to destroy blood cancers.

With CAR-T therapy, a patient’s T cells (a kind of immune system cell) are genetically modified in the laboratory so that they will attack cancer cells.

Earlier in late 2016, Chinese scientists launched the first known human trials of CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), a gene-editing technology which can be used to alter a human body’s DNA.

Renowned scientist and cancer immunotherapy expert Dr. Carl June predicted that this latter development could lead to a genomic race between China and the United States similar to the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States following the former’s launch of the satellite Sputnik into space.

China has more advanced CAR-T and CRISPR treatments

However, according to a Goldman Sachs analysis reported by Endpoint News, China is currently ahead of the United States in the development of new wave CAR-T and CRISPR treatments.

According to Goldman analyst Salveen Richter and her team, as of the end of February 2018, there were nine registered clinical studies testing CRISPR-edited cells to treat various cancers and HIV infection in China, while there was only one study in the United States. All of these studies in China were initiated or sponsored by top public hospitals across China, with over 80 patients reported to have been treated by these investigational genome medicines.

However, according to Goldman Sachs, China still lags behind the United States in CAR-T trials. However, China is catching up fast. In the meantime, China has had a distinct head start in CRISPR. In 2017 alone, China’s Natural Science Foundation funded 90 CRISPR initiatives and nearly 300 in the past four years.

Still, this does not mean that the United States will necessarily lag behind China forever, since stricter regulation of certain gene-editing practices in China could slow its pace.

For instance, the Financial Times of 25 January 2019 reported that Chinese scientist He Jiankui is set to face criminal charges for having created gene-edited babies, a first in the world which is illegal in many countries.

Still, there’s much interest from biotechnology pioneers and pharmaceutical partners in the United States to keep the field competitive.

However, genomic therapies are still extraordinarily expensive and ultimately, whoever can provide the therapy at the most affordable price will win the battle for market share.

Blood-based cancer diagnostics

WuXi NextCODE’s (WXNC’)  Genomically Ordered Relational database (or GORdb) will do for  medical researchers and clinicians what Google’s search engine did for internet users nearly two decades ago, according to the company’s co-founder and chief executive officer, Hannes Smarason, the South China Morning Post of 30 November 2017 reported.

The human genome was first mapped and identified in 2003 and WXNC is a genomic data pioneer based in Shanghai, Cambridge, Massachusetts and Reykjavik, and is a leading player in helping pharmaceutical companies and others in health care to realise the promise of the human genome.

WXNC was acquired by Shanghai and US-based WuXi AppTec in 2015 and merged with AppTec’s Genome Centre in Shanghai. It uses a proprietary platform to reduce the time to diagnose someone with a rare disease down to a matter of hours.

Each human genome has 3.2 billion “bases”, or bits of information, requiring about 150 gigabytes of storage. WXNC’s GORdb stores and analyses huge amounts of genetic code and indexes new genetic variations from genomes sequenced by the company, its partners and in every public data resource.

By combining computational power with artificial intelligence, GORdb is able to make sense of and use genomic information for various purposes at low-cost, according to Smarason.

According to Dr Jeffrey Gulcher, one of WXNC’s founders, unlike other relational databases, GORdb uses the position on the genome as a frame of reference to be able to manage such massive amounts of genetic data.

WXNC has also partnered with many of the world’s largest 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.

Artificial intelligence leveraged genomic informatics

All genetic code sequenced by WXNC and its partners is said to have created the world’s largest genetic knowledge base. Also, the company is developing applications which may help doctors to diagnose more prevalent illnesses with greater accuracy, whilst enabling pharmaceutical companies to develop more effective treatments for these illnesses.

Thomas Chittenden, founding director of the WuXi NextCODE Advanced Artificial Intelligence Research Laboratory expects that soon, the company will be able to take a blood sample, genetically analyse it and be able to identify the presence of any DNA in the blood resulting from a tumour with 99.5% accuracy.

Besides the worldwide presence of WXNC’s database, other companies, such as the Beijing-based BGI and US-based Illumina and Quest Diagnostics offer some of the same services, whilst others believe that WXNC’s presence in China will enable it to stay ahead of whatever competition it faces.

WXNC’s line of consumer-oriented products sold in China include FamilyCODE, a carrier test for prospective parents, RareCODE, a rare disease diagnostic product for children and HealthCODE, which provides a report showing relative risk for 28 common diseases.

“One of the reasons we chose WuXi NextCODE is that it’s one of the very few companies in China that can access China and other global markets,” said Trency Gu, vice-president at Sequoia Capital China, which led a consortium that recently provided US $240 million in financing for WXNC. “WuXi NextCODE is offering products with clear clinical demand.”

Other investors include Singapore’s Temasek Holdings, Yunfeng Capital, founded by Alibaba Group Holding chairman Jack Ma Yun, and 3W Partners.

Genetic code sequence miner

The two key reasons for WXNC to develop the market for AI-leveraged genomic informatics in China are:-

  1. China aims to become a global artificial intelligence leader by 2030 and such support encourages WXNC, which as its next step plans to release a software development kit for its platform in a bid to create and “app store” for which other developers can create applications.
  • There’s interest shown amongst administrations at all levels across China to use its tools in enhancing public health.

WXNC plans to use the proceeds of its more recent round of funding rapidly extend the reach of its platform infrastructure to bring new users and data on board through precision medicine and diagnostics partnerships, and to commercialise its consumer solutions for the China market.

In the process, the company expects its platform to drive change in medical treatments along the lines which people had originally expected of the human genome was first decoded.

International Data Corporation expects that by 2022, there will be much greater understanding of the human genome.

Meanwhile Pauwels believes that China’s leading role in the merger of artificial intelligence with biotechnology matters because companies in China and the Silicon Valley are competing for proprietary access to the genetic data of entire populations, which can be analysed using machine learning to drastically advance genomic and medical research, and that breakthroughs and overall leadership in these fields will have repercussions for the global economy.

Artificial intelligence can be used to target specific genetic markers from massive genomics data sets, which is why it is so useful in personalised health monitoring and in designing more precise treatments and tests for diseases.

Artificial intelligence in personalised health monitoring

For instance, in personalised health monitoring, one of China’s biotechnology companies, the Shenzen-based iCarbonX, has developed an earlier promise to use AI to revolutionise health care.

iCarbonX has formed an alliance with seven technology companies from around the world that specialise in gathering different types of health-care data, its founder, Jun Wang told the Digital Life Summit, which iCarbonX hosted on 5 January 2017.

The alliance will use algorithms to analyse massive amounts of genomic, physiological and behavioural data and provide customised health and medical advice directly to consumers through an app.

Whilst Google, IBM and various smaller companies, such as Arivale of Seattle, Washington, are working on similar technology, Wang claimed that the iCarbonX alliance can collect data more cheaply and quickly.

The tools offered by alliance partners are cutting edge and the set-up will allow different types of data to be integrated seamlessly; moreover, China’s large population is already used to sharing information through WeChat and other social media, said Wang.

“No one will be able to collect at the same scale that I am doing,” he claimed and he is confident that he can get samples and data from one million people by 2022, which in turn will lead to a more informed artificial intelligence.

Amongst other factors, Pauwels noted”

  • The Chinese government has committed $9.2 billion over 15 years into a precision medicine initiative, which includes funding the use of
    artificial intelligence.
  • The NIH’s comparable initiative was appropriated funding of just $1.5 billion over ten years. Chinese VC and private investments also dwarf similar American investments.
  • In 2017, China invested an additional $4 billion in the American AI and biotech sectors — and gained access to datasets and potentially to trade secrets.

Meanwhile, China also has a receptive regulatory system, high skills in precision manufacturing, and low labor costs.

Meanwhile, Frost & Sullivan predicts that artificial intelligence technologies will generate US$6.7 billion in global revenue from health care by 2021.

Artificial intelligence and biotech-dominant countries could use other countries’ bio-data for economic growth and China is already working to access the bio-data of emerging markets in Africa.

However, Pauwels sees barriers to such collaborative developments in the US government’s attempts to restrict China’s investments in American firms developing AI and other technologies that are critical for national security.

Such efforts in that direction include the Fair Trade with China Enforcement Act, introduced in the Senate in May 2018, and the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act of 2018, enacted in August.

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