Breakthroughs in medicine are slow—it can take 12 years to launch a new drug, it took minimally invasive surgery a century to become mainstream, and it has been 14 years since the human genome was sequenced and we are still waiting to see its true potential. But artificial intelligence might be the secret ingredient to speed up the process.
China has already taken its place as the global leader in DNA sequencing all thanks to one company— BGI. Today local companies are going beyond sequencing, marrying AI and genomics in a push to make precision medicine the next mainstream. One of them is WuXi NextCode (WXNC) with offices in Shanghai, Reykjavik and Cambridge, Mass.
At the heart of every good AI algorithm lies data. According to WXNC’s co-founder and CEO Hannes Smarason, the company’s platform for genomic data holds the world’s biggest dataset for one of the world’s biggest industries—healthcare.
“It’s like Google or Baidu and information on the web: the more websites that are included in their search engines, the better answer they can give to your specific query,” said Smarason.
WXNC has just made Baidu veteran John Gu its Chief Digital Officer who noted in the announcement that putting the genome to work is “the biggest data opportunity in the years ahead.” Healthcare, especially genomics, is an area of large and complex data. “With AI, we can mine together not just our DNA but also medical records, wearable devices, microscopic-level changes in our bodies, and everything else we know about biology,” said Smarason.
“In essence, AI is enabling us to apply unprecedentedly vast amounts of data to better understand disease and optimize health,” he added.
This pool of data is likely to swell as Chinese health authorities have recently announced the country’s first Big Data health management platform which will gather information from smart tracking devices into one place. Combined with genetic information this could help find new risk markers for diseases such as heart disease.
WXNC sees the marriage between AI and genomics as a useful tool for fighting cancer. Their recent work with Yale medical school has helped identify a key new pathway for creating new drugs against heart disease and cancer, and genetic signatures that can automatically differentiate between 22 different cancers.
“(AI) is going to give us new and powerful drug targets and medicines; it is going to completely transform our ability to diagnose disease; it is going to sharpen our ability to get the right cancer drugs to the right patients; and ultimately it is going to help us to create new means not just of treating disease better, but also of keeping more people well,” said Smarason.
In addition to offering genomic data to health institutions and businesses, WXNC provides genetic testing for consumers in China where demand is rising. In September, the company had its $240 million Series B financing round with Alibaba co-founded Yunfeng Capital as one of its investors.
Other companies in China are developing their own crossovers between AI tech and genomics. IcarbonX was one of the three AI healthcare unicorns last year and it is developing sophisticated gadgets to track health data. The Chinese government has made precision medicine a key fixture in its 5-year plan awarding it an impressive $9.2 billion in funding. Its support for AI technology, in general, has drawn plenty of attention.
But despite the successes in AI genomics, healthcare AI is still not the strongest point on a country-level. Health and wellness are globally the hottest areas of investment in AI right now, according to a report from CB Insights. Startups are leveraging machine learning to reduce drug discovery times, providing virtual assistants to patients, and upgrading medical imaging and diagnostics. But numbers show that China is generally lagging behind in AI healthcare—the list of funding deals shows that 73% of them went to US startups since 2012. China is not even in the top five.
Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent are trying to catch up with healthcare projects developed by US-based IBM’s Watson and Google’s DeepMind. Alibaba is creating virtual assistants to doctors ET Medical Brain and working with BGI, Baidu launched AI-powered doctor assistant bot Melody, and Tencent released its AI-assisted medical imaging and has been investing in health startups including iCarbonX. However, China’s edge in genomics might be the secret ingredient that speeds up its healthcare AI advance.