Precision medicine plan in China may be announced in March

The Chinese government is expected to announce a precision medicine initiative in March that could dwarf the $215 million U.S. plan announced last year.

But China's efforts could stumble because the country faces a shortage of doctors with the skills and knowledge to make use of the genomic data gathered from the millions of Chinese citizens that will likely join in the plan.

Precision medicine enables doctors to target drugs most likely to benefit patients and uses vast amounts of data ranging from genomes to health records to determine how specific drugs will help specific people.

Zhan Qimin

A report in Nature said Chinese officials could dedicate upward of $9 billion to the initiative with that amount spread over 15 years, but Zhan Qimin, director of China's State Key Laboratory of Molecular Oncology at Peking Union Medical College said in the report that the effort will be made up of "hundreds of separate projects" funded by the money.

Nature also reported that researchers at Tsinghua University, Fudan University and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences are setting up precision medicine centers with Sichuan University's West China Hospital planning to sequence 1 million human genomes itself, "the same goal as the entire U.S. initiative," Nature reported.

China is said to be targeting specific cancers common to mainland patients such as stomach and liver cancer, according to the report.

Genome-sequencing companies have already put skin in the game with equipment purchased from Illumina ($ILMN) of San Diego, which counts BGI, WuXi PharmaTech, Cloud Health and Novogene as customers.

Ta Jen Liu, project director at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, said there are hurdles to China's plans, according to the Nature report.

He said researchers and pharmaceutical companies "have not had much success in developing drugs so far" and "doctors are always overwhelmed with patients, seeing 60 or 70 a day … they don't have time to sit down and think about what is best for specific patients."

- here's the report from Nature

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