Asia’s Big Biomedical Bet Pays off
AsianScientist – Asia is probably the most exciting region in the world for the biomedical sciences today. It offers a range of income levels, ethnicities, occupations, traditions, operating conditions and regulatory environments not found anywhere else. These are the result of a confluence of economic, social and technological forces.
Consider first the growing importance of Asia as a market for (Western) Big Pharma, a shift that has occurred in tandem with the region’s broader economic rise. This has prompted greater infusions of capital, talent and biomedical knowhow into the region. Big Pharma now recognizes the lucrative opportunity—alongside the obvious moral imperative—associated with developing drugs specifically for non-Western consumers.
Asian biomedical firms have evolved in this competitive environment, shifting rapidly up the value chain from performing outsourced research and manufacturing generic drugs to innovating at the leading edge of the field. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairperson and managing director of Biocon, says that in India for a long time, clinical practice was prioritized over clinical research because of the sheer volume of patients. Yet today she observes more widespread efforts to build up the differentiated datasets that are crucial to the research ecosystem.
“I’ve seen the big shift from imitative to original research, which is very important for any research-led kind of economy.”
Asia’s emergence as a biomedical research powerhouse also reflects the importance of (Internet-powered) global innovation networks, which allow Asia-based researchers to remain abreast of global currents in a way not possible in the past.
Shinya Yamanaka, who jointly won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for the discovery that mature cells can be converted to behave like stem cells, stresses the importance of maintaining ties to the US, the “center of science.” Yamanaka’s work holds great promise for cell-based therapy and biomedical research, among other things.
Heightened government interest in science and technology, and the attendant increase in research funding, has also been a boon for biomedical scientists such as Dennis Lo, a chemical pathologist whose discoveries birthed the non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT) industry.
Lo returned from the UK to his native Hong Kong in 1997. He discovered that he could extract a reliable and sufficient amount of fetal DNA from maternal plasma and serum. Lo’s NIPT portfolio, assigned to the Chinese University of Hong Kong, was subsequently sub-licensed to firms such as Sequenom and Illumina.
Asia’s more general enthusiasm for new technologies also suggests that biomedical sciences will quickly benefit from emerging ones like 3D printing, artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain. Blockchain, for instance, has the potential to heighten collaboration between actors in sprawling research and innovation networks by allowing them to safely share digital assets.
AI is already being harnessed to accelerate drug discovery—particularly relevant in an era of personalized medicine—as well as in diagnostics. China’s Tencent has deployed its AI Medical Innovation System (AIMIS) in over ten hospitals around the country. AIMIS has demonstrated accuracy rates of over 90 percent for preliminary diagnoses of esophageal cancer, 95 percent for lung sarcoidosis and 97 percent for diabetic retinopathy.
Even as Asian biomedical scientists are gazing into the future, they are also reaching back into the region’s past—to assess how traditional medical practices and knowledge banks might be applied to modern medicine.
The textbook example is Tu Youyou’s discovery of artemisinin in 1972 through the use of fourth century Chinese texts, which eventually led to her jointly winning the 2015 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. A more recent one is PHY906, a four-herb Chinese formula from a 1,800-year-old recipe that has been shown to alleviate chemotherapy’s side effects while enhancing its anti-tumor activities.
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Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Illustration: Oi Keat Lam/Asian Scientist Magazine.
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