China’s rising genomics start-ups

How Chinese start-ups are going big on the genome

Behind bellwethers BGI Genomics Co. Ltd. and WuXi NextCode Genomics Inc., a new generation of Chinese genomics companies is emerging with ambitions to solve urgent problems, including early cancer detection and clinical trial recruitment, by mining health and genomic data on massive scales. While the field’s fast growth and alignment with national priorities are signs China could take pole position in genomics, the big unknown is how diagnostics regulation will influence the landscape.

China was an early entrant to genomics, precipitated by its participation in the Human Genome Project in the late 1990s, according to BGI Genomics CSO Mao Mao.

“If you look at all the areas of basic research in China, suddenly genomics was ranked much higher than other subjects like physics and chemistry,” said Mao. “We caught it at the beginning.”

BGI launched as a not-for-profit research organization in 1999 and also went on to become a commercial genomics research and clinical testing powerhouse, with its BGI Genomics division listing on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange in July 2017. BGI researchers have published hundreds of papers, and the company established the China National GeneBank, a bio-repository and -omics database.

In 2015, CRO giant WuXi PharmaTech Inc. -- now New WuXi Life Science Ltd. -- acquired Massachusetts-based NextCODE Health. The resulting subsidiary, WuXi NextCode, uses computational architecture developed by Iceland’s deCode genetics, plus artificial intelligence, to drive its genomics analysis and diagnostic platforms (see: “WuXi Ex Machina”).

Now, a next generation of Chinese genomics companies are gaining ground, assembling databases that rival the size of major Western projects built by consortia. The wave is benefiting from the early movers, including former BGI CEO Jun Wang, who founded digital health company iCarbonX and Mao, who this year founded early cancer detection newco SeekIn Inc. He retains his CSO role at BGI part time, and the companies are independent.

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