China Makes Strides in Life Science in 2018

Although we are only four months into the year, China has already announced further progress in the life sciences, with science-based collaborations and increased R&D budgets, as well as developments addressing scientific data security and innovations in biotechnology.

In January, the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology revealed it had budgeted more than CNY 13 billion ($2 billion at CNY 6.28 = $1) for its R&D programs in 2018. These programs are made up of 40 special projects and 600 minor projects in four fields: social development, high-tech research, agricultural science and fundamental research.

Of this budget, the majority will be for social development research, with 42% of total projects in this field, as well as 35% of the overall budget. Most of the projects are for risk control in public security and technical equipment for emergencies. Approximately 10% of the total budget will be allocated to medical research, which will receive CNY 1.2 billion ($191.2 million) for five special projects. Between 2016 and 2018, 30% of the Ministry’s social development budget was allocated to medical research.

A little over a quarter of the Ministry’s total budget,  CNY 4.4 billion ($700.9 million), will be for high-tech research projects, such R&D for renewable energy-sourced automobiles, as well as for additive and laser manufacturing. In regards to agricultural science projects, the budgets are dependent on what industries will be spotlighted by the Chinese government this year. For example, between 2016 and 2018, the budget for agricultural science was largely for air pollution control and deep sea technology and equipment, and totaled CNY 2.2 billion ($350.1 million).

Also in January, the government of China announced a partnership with the Cambodian government, pledging $1 million to the Cambodian Environment Ministry for water quality control, as well as research equipment. The Ministry signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation for work on water quality control with the Chinese Academy of Science, making this the very first time Cambodia will have equipment for water quality control, according to Cambodian Undersecretary of State Eang Sophalleth. The Wndersecretary also added that the equipment will be used to monitor water quality all over the country, including the Mekong River, the longest river in Southeast Asia.

Investing in Security and Innovation

At the onset of 2018, Nature magazine reported that China had surpassed the US in total output of scientific publications, and while the US remains the world’s top spender on R&D, the country’s R&D budget haslargely remained flat, while China has been increasing its R&D investments. With the boom in the quantity and quality of scientific publications and R&D, China has made the security of scientific research data a priority, with the General Office of the State Council announcing measures to address the issue earlier this month. According to the Office, the measures will not only address state security, but also the country’s scientific innovation, and economic and social development.

New research methods and data gathering techniques have impacted science fields such as bioscience, geoscience and physics, with innovation now largely based on large and reliable data sets. The new measures will focus on this through data security and sharing methods, improving the way data is gathered, accessed, used, shared and protected. Owners of data will be responsible for data management, and all data from scientific programs must be collected and reported for long-term storage in data centers around the country.

China has also been taking the initiative in the field of biotechnology, working on innovations and products to become a world leader in cell therapies like Car-T. Due to the country’s low labor and overhead costs, high-tech precision manufacturing capabilities, and a responsive regulatory process, there are already more Car-T clinical trials in China than in the US, with researchers forecasting that China could surpass the US in this field.

Manufacturing costs of Car-T in China can be as low as one sixth the price of US costs. Another advantage of Chinese Car-T trials is that the use of CRISPR gene-editing technologies is permitted, as it has been used in at least two Car-T trials; however, CRISPR is not permitted in human trials in the US. Also, in the US, patients are only eligible for Car-T trials when all other treatments have failed to work, whereas in China, patients can participate in Car-T trials after their chemotherapy treatments have failed. In the US, this is considered a “first-line” treatment.

In 2017, there was $10 billion worth of investment in Chinese biotechnology companies, largely from Chinese-born scientists returning to China from overseas. As of April 2018, there were 116 Car-T clinical trials in China, compared to the 96 in the US. The ease in recruiting patients for clinical trials is mostly due to China’s large ageing population, high levels of pollution and unhealthy lifestyles, which resulted in 4.3 million cases of cancer diagnoses in 2015, two times the number in 2000. In response to the high demand in clinical trials, Chinese R&D in this field has skyrocketed. Approximately 30 Chinese companies involved in Car-T trials are partnering with government subsidiaries to construct over 10,000 sq² (929 m²) of Car-T manufacturing facilities this year.