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Meet The Chinese Company That Wants To Be The Intel Of Personalized Medicine
Publish Date: 2018-06-07

In 1999, the first fully sequenced human genome cost roughly $3 billion to complete. By 2007, the cost had decreased to a couple of million dollars, and today it is around $1,000. BGI, a Shenzhen-based company, thinks it can drive the cost down to $200.

Its confidence is not misplaced. BGI has already invested hundreds of millions of dollars, and is at the forefront of a technology revolution known as Next Generation Sequencing (NextGen), which allows genomics testing to be done at a scale and speed that was previously impossible. BGI’s nano-array chip manufacturing capability leverages China’s low-cost high technology manufacturing capabilities to make parallel genomic sequencing cost effective. The company has another advantage, thanks to its home country: China's complementary low cost skilled labor. That combination puts BGI in the perfect position to help forge the future of personalized medicine.

Founded in 1999 as a research institution, BGI today has offices and facilities in seven countries. Their newest office opened early last month in the world’s hub for public health and cloud computing, Seattle. BGI acquired Silicon Valley-based sequencing company Complete Genomics in 2013 and has made the company an essential part of its global operation over the past three years. Based on CG’s technology, BGI launched its proprietary high-throughput next-gen sequencers, BGISEQ-500 and BGISEQ-50 in 2015 and 2016 respectively--and they’re game-changers.

For example, imagine there is a prematurely-born baby with a problem the hospital staff is not sure what the cause is. For hospitals without BGI’s testing capabilities, the only way to manage the baby’s healthcare is through a series of trial and errors that require constant oversight by a neo-natal nurse. The typical cost for this type of medical supervision in a neo-natal hospital ward in the U.S. is around $20,000 a day. But with BGI’s new testing platform, a genomics panel can be run and the possibility of defining precisely what is wrong with the child is now within reach through a test that costs approximately $1,000, assuming the hospital has the appropriate testing equipment.

Here is why BGI’s fixation on cost matters: As the prices for human genome sequencing plummet, the likelihood of major medical advances based on what this data shows us rises, and does so exponentially. Right now, genomics testing is still a clumsy tool.

It is at one hand deeply insightful about you and your particular predisposition for specific types of diseases, and on the other hand does not yet live up to what most scientists believe is the full potential for personalized medicine. One simple reason is that the data set available to scientists remains relatively small. As data sets scale, it will become increasingly possible to design and develop new therapeutics that are customized to very specific gene profiles. All of these advances are taking place against a backdrop where questions around who owns an individual’s data, and what can be done with this data once it has been sequenced remain unanswered.

An additional issue that could well require another technological revolution is that the computational power required to do something with the resulting data set remains a major challenge. Depending on how a full genomics panel is created, one person’s data file can be anywhere between half and a full terabyte in size. Storing this is a big challenge and one of the reasons BGI sees the need to have a base of operations in Seattle, where the world’s leading cloud computing and cloud storage companies are based; however, building the computational capability to sort and analyze the data is an even greater concern.

Our ability to look forward and see the technical challenges around how to investigate this massive amount of data is only possible because the costs for testing have come down so dramatically as to re-focus our energies on the next technological frontier for personalized medicine. And making this transition was only possible when scientific advancement was married to massive investments in high-technology chip manufacturing, the sort that China has perfected over the course of the last several decades.

Could this all have been done outside of China? Perhaps. But it was not, and that fact points towards the unique strides Chinese companies have made to become global players.