Up Next: Outsourcing for Sequencing
China’s Investment in Medical Research
In a recent discussion on the growth of scientific research in China, a group of experts debated whether the country has the intellectual, financial, and management resources to surpass the United States as the world leader in scientific innovation. As a medical researcher and frequent visitor to China, I believe the answer is very close to yes. My research group uses cutting-edge molecular analysis techniques to study human pluripotent stem cells, the cells that can be expanded indefinitely and differentiated into any of the hundreds of cell types in the body. Writing for The New York Times “Room for Debate” blog, Jonathan Moreno discussed China’s rapid progress in human pluripotent stem cell research, fueled by the government’s recent decision to dedicate funds to the promising and potentially lucrative area of regenerative medicine. Part of the Chinese government’s reasoning was almost certainly the fact that the U.S. government was reluctant to provide adequate support for this field during the Bush administration, which gave China a distinct advantage.
But there’s another niche in which China’s scientific research is rapidly accelerating, and this has far greater ramifications. The Beijing Genome Institute (now called just “BGI,” since its operations extend beyond Beijing) just announced that they placed an order for 128 new high-performance DNA sequencing instruments from the U.S. firm Illumina. This is the largest order of sequencers ever, anywhere. At a retail price of $690,000 each, even if the machines are discounted, the purchase of this instrumentation alone is a phenomenal investment of at least $60 million in a single year. This purchase will bring the total number of sequencers at BGI to 157, nearly twice the number of instruments at the largest sequencing center in the United States, the Broad Institute at MIT, which will bring its total to 89 this year.
Why is this important? DNA sequencing is destined to become the major tool for developing new diagnostic tests, developing drugs, and understanding the causes of human disease. Led by the United States, the first full sequencing of all 3 billion “letters” in the human genome took 13 years and billions of dollars. With this new capacity, BGI could completely sequence several individuals’ genomes in just a couple of weeks.
The cost of running these instruments includes the reagents and the cost of personnel. China will have to pay full price for reagents, but the cost of labor is far less than it is in the United States, and with China’s high standards for science education, there is no shortage of highly trained technicians.
What’s the bottom line? The Chinese government has made a decision to invest in a technology that is clearly the way of the future. The Chinese will be able to achieve with DNA sequencing just what they attained in the manufacturing industry: the ability to do it cheaper and faster than anyone else. This potential for technical superiority raises two important issues for American academics and businesses.
First, there is the simple matter of economics. I predict that U.S. scientists and companies will find in the next few years that their funding goes further if they subcontract sequencing projects to China. As the demand for DNA sequencing for medical applications grows, we will be sending more and more of our money, and our jobs, to China.
Second, China’s sequencing power has the potential to tip the balance in innovation, the inventions and ideas that currently underlie the success of U.S. biotechnology. For a while, at least, Americans will still have the edge in publishing scientific papers using sequencing, because in the Western-dominated scientific publication industry, explaining the importance of the data is as critical as producing the data. However, China’s investment in sequencing will allow the country to build a valuable intellectual property portfolio because new discoveries will be made at a furious pace.
An example of an emerging field of scientific discovery that is dependent on sequencing power is epigenetics. Almost all the cells in the body have the same DNA sequence, and epigenetic modifications of the DNA are responsible for controlling which genes are turned on and off in different cells. The first complete human “epigenome” maps of normal cells were published in scientific journals just in the last few months. Epigenome sequencing requires more intensive sequencing and computer resources than genome sequencing; BGI is one of a handful of genome centers worldwide that can take on these large projects.
How will epigenome sequencing pay off? Epigenetic changes play a role in many human diseases, including cancers. A key discovery, such as an epigenetic modification that is common to particular cancers, could lead to better diagnostic tests, which could in turn lead to more precise, more effective treatments. The scientific group that makes such a discovery could reap millions from licensing patents alone.
This means that an investment of millions in sequencing power now could easily pay off many-fold in the near future. I’m certain that the Chinese government did not have strictly academic interests in mind when they decided to make their country the most powerful sequencing machine in the world.
Jeanne F. Loring, Ph.D., is a professor and the director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.
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