Reducing the price of genetic medicine and DNA testing could dramatically reduce the subsequent cost burden of treatment for patients and their families, making healthcare more affordable for individuals and the government alike, especially as China has particularly serious health risks and an aging population, said CEO of BGI Miracle Light, Liu Liang, at a panel at TechCrunch Shenzhen.

Healthcare provision in China poses many problems to its users. It is often prohibitively expensive, varies hugely in terms of quality between institutions and regions, and trust of the medical profession is at rock bottom. Health insurance is complicated and even those with coverage generally have to pay hospital bills upfront then wait for reimbursement. It is not uncommon for an illness to push an entire extended family into dire financial straits.

Liu Liang, CEO of Miracle Light, the incubator at BGI
Liu Liang, CEO of Miracle Light, the incubator at BGI

“The year 2014 was a landmark year for Chinese people’s awareness of their own health. The most encouraging situation for the application of genetic medicine is happening here in China. Coming back to cancer, it’s our concerted effort and will to beat it, but it’s not easy. In the last year, 6 million more people developed cancer in China and 2.5 million died of the disease. It’s genetic medicine that’s going to rid us of this disease,” said Liu Liang who was participating in the “Biotech, Medtech and Genomics Opportunities” panel.

Danny Yeung, CEO of consumer genetics testing company Prenetics, pointed out the benefits of taking a preventative approach to healthcare saying “we’re trying to cover 90% of diseases as 90% of diseases are preventable.”

Prenetics CEO Danny Yeung
Prenetics CEO Danny Yeung

While genetic testing products have fallen in price as technology has improved and competition intensified, Liu Liang got into how technological advances can bring down the cost of treatment when patients actually become ill, and the costs for the country.

“Traditional imaging techniques for tumors do not necessarily find them and tumors can remain latent for 10 to 15 years and by the time any symptoms are detected, the disease is quite far advanced. Once it has been confirmed as cancer, full genome test to identify the markers will cost hundreds of thousands of yuan [tens of thousands of dollars], and if you are fortunate to find a targeted medicine, the cheapest treatment will cost thousands of RMB [hundreds of dollars] a week up to $10,000 in treatments to combat the disease,” Liu said.

“That’s way beyond an average household’s ability and we hope that within five years, we can get the cost of whole genome sequencing below $100 [the current rate is now below the $1,000 mark], an amount that many will be able to manage,” he said. “At the moment we have no effective way to eradicate cancer, but we hope that we can start to bring early stage detection into reach for more people.”

Liu also spoke about how the aging of the population, combined with other problems China has such as soil and air pollution and a massive healthcare funding gap, will mean governments local and national will not be able to afford the healthcare costs generated by the populations.

Whole genome sequencing can help as people will know from birth what conditions they are predisposed to and can try to avoid illnesses such as cancer from being triggered. “We need to bring forward methods for disease prevention,” said Liu. “Whether it’s companies like Lilly [Lilly Ventures, a Chinese healthcare VC] or startups, we need to provide a basis for the sector and cooperate with the rest of the world.”

Judith Li, partner at Lilly Asia Ventures
Judith Li, partner at Lilly Asia Venturesmira

This basis for growth in the industry is already taking shape. “Outsiders from other industries such real estate and tourism entering this industry and we want to welcome them,” announced Liu.

Frank Hersey is a Beijing-based tech reporter who's been coming to China since 2001. He tries to go beyond the headlines to explain the context and impact of developments in China's tech sector. Get in...

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