Scientist Eric Lander was one of the key figures in mapping the human genome – the $3 billion project that laid bare our genetic blueprint, in what he described as “biology’s moonshot”.
The Human Genome Project was completed in 2003. Since then, the discipline known as “genomics” has grown into an important area of biological research, as scientists sequence a broader range of genomes not only in humans but also across a range of plants and animals.
But an old shoe factory in Shenzhen is the last place you might expect to find one of the world’s most important analyser of genes.
Then again, the success of BGI-Shenzhen acts as a warning to those who think that Chinese companies lack innovation and international know-how.
Prestigious journal Science described the company last year as a “genomics powerhouse”, going on to say that its work was transforming the company into “the only genomics enterprise with a global footprint”.
Considering that BGI’s sequencing data accounts for half of global total, these comments seems justified.
Beijing Genomics Institute (or BGI) was established in 1999 by a group of scientists, including Wang Jian, a Hunan native with a doctorate from the University of Washington and Yang Huanming, a Copenhagen Ph.D. With Rmb50 million ($8.15 million) worth of government funding it provided China’s contribution to the Human Genome Project. Its participation may have been small, but it was enough for the firm to be recognised as a member of the scientific firmament.
BGI subsequently built on its reputation by mapping the genome for rice (research which led to a paper in journal Science), as well as for other items as varied as the giant panda, the silkworm and the cucumber.
Soon afterwards, it made a practical contribution to containing SARS by unravelling the genetic make-up of the virus. That earned management a photo opportunity with former president Hu Jintao and led to the BGI being merged into the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).
The integration wasn’t to last, however. As the years passed, new sequencing technology was emerging, with more advanced equipment greatly reducing the time needed to sort through a genome. Wang Jian wanted to expand but colleagues at CAS dismissed his plans to purchase more equipment, reports The Founder magazine.
In 2007, Wang split with CAS and decamped from Beijing to Shenzhen, where he found the local government more willing to accommodate his ambitions. The municipal government provided BGI with nearly Rmb100 million of funding.
BGI then rolled out its core business, conducting sequencing work for other organisations, such as universities and pharmaceutical companies. Its repeat customers were varied, soon including the University of Edinburgh and Saudi Biosciences (which is sequencing Arab genomes).
Sequencing genes demands equipment and manpower, and BGI is abundant in both – in the case of the former thanks to a $1.5 billion loan from the China Development Bank. Using this it purchased 128 sets of sequencing machines, a steep increase from the 20 it previously had.
On the staff front it has expanded rapidly too: the company now has more than 4,000 employees (20% of the world’s sequencing researchers) with an average age of just 26, reports Bloomberg Businessweek. The youth of the workforce reflects a science that is still in its early days, says Wang Jun, the company’s 36 year-old executive director. It also plays to a process which is labour-intensive.
“We don’t need Ph.Ds to do this work,” Wang told Businessweek. “You just throw them in.” (In fact, local media are describing the firm as akin to the Foxconn of genetics, referring to its operation as a “sequence factory”.)
The increase in scale led to a rapid growth in revenues – Rmb1.1 billion last year, up from Rmb343 million in 2009.
BGI’s roots are in its sequencing business but Wang Jian told The Founder that the future of the company could lie in newer areas such as genetic medical tests, a unit that experienced a seven-fold increase in revenues last year.For example, BGI came up with a non-invasive gene test that finds Down’s Syndrome in unborn babies. Nearly 100,000 women in China have undergone the test, which is an alternative to a more complicated procedure that comes with a risk of miscarriage.
But BGI’s greatest cash cow may lie further in the future. That’s because as improvements in technology make the cost of sequencing ever cheaper, it gets more feasible to provide a full map of an individual’s DNA. With this information to hand, it could become possible to find out whether a person is susceptible to certain diseases, or prescribe the most effective treatments.
The cost of a personalised sequence is much cheaper than it used to be but at around Rmb100,000 it is still beyond the budget of the average patient. But if costs continue to decline, getting an individual genetic blueprint could become standard.
If that happens, Wang Jian forecasts that BGI revenues could reach Rmb1 trillion.
Predicting such ‘sales’ remains highly speculative, if only because this field of science is still in its infancy. Knowledge of how genes relate to a particular condition or disease is still very basic. For some conditions, such as Down’s Syndrome and cystic fibrosis, it is already possible to lay down a marker in the DNA. But others are more complicated and harder to predict by looking at an individual genome. Add in environmental factors and the picture becomes even harder to read.
This is why the Human Genome Project has yet to revolutionise practical healthcare. The mountain of genetic data is piling up but scientists aren’t quite sure how to use it.
In the meantime, BGI still has its core business of sequencing genomes for other institutions, something that looks set to get a boost from its recent acquisition of Complete Genomics. In April, BGI completed a $117.6 million acquisition of the California-based provider of genome sequencing technology.
Access to Complete Genomics’ sequencing technology should also make BGI less dependent on its main supplier of equipment, Illumina Inc – another US firm that dominates the global market for sequencing machines.
As Illumina was also in the running to buy Complete Genomics, it should be no surprise that it sought to play the national security card to scotch BGI’s rival bid, reports Businessweek. But in this instance, it failed to persuade Washington lawmakers that the takeover was a threat to national security. With the deal completed, BGI gets more than a boost to its technical capabilities: it will also gain access to Complete Genomic’s stash of genetic information. Pooling these two large sets of data will provide greater opportunity to make connections within the larger mass of biological code.
Genomics is rapidly evolving into a ‘big data’ project. Companies with the most information and the greatest amount of processing power are more likely to come up with the kind of discoveries that can be converted into healthcare solutions (and lucrative revenue streams).
Another field for BGI is proteomics, which focuses on proteins. As an article in TIME magazine put it a fortnight ago, understanding proteomes is complementary to mapping genomes. It reveals not just the genetic likelihood of getting a given disease but can also warn if a disesase has begun to develop.
BGI’s list of goals is a heady one: it aims to improve the human lifespan by five years, increase global food production by 10%, decode half of all genetic diseases and cut birth defects by 50%.
“We are a little bit ambitious,” admits Wang Jun, “but we are ambitious for good reason.” After all, BGI expects to sequence 50,000 genomes this year, more than 10 a minute, Toronto’s Globe and Mail points out.
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