Betting big on biotech

October 09, 2018

Under pressure to address the nation’s huge unmet health care needs and to build an internationally competitive and innovative pharmaceutical industry as part of a wider economic restructuring, Beijing has listed biotechnology as one of 10 key sectors for development under its ‘Made in China 2025’ industrial strategy.


Biotechnology “harnesses cellular and biomolecular processes to develop technologies and products that help improve our lives and the health of our planet”, according to BIO, the world’s largest trade association representing the industry. In general terms, biotechnology is the use of living organisms or compounds obtained from living organisms to create products of value to humans.

Since ancient times, humans have been using biological processes to make bread and cheese and to preserve dairy products.

Today, biotechnology breakthroughs help combat life-threatening and difficult-to-treat diseases, increase food production, provide cleaner energy and make manufacturing more efficient and environmentally friendly.

Why biotech and health?

The sequencing of the human genome has marked a before-and-after moment in the history of medicine by allowing the study of the genetic basis of diseases. 80 per cent of adult diseases have a genetic basis influenced by environmental factors, and there are thousands of genes related to the development of diseases. In fact, the research of genes and proteins (genomics and proteomics), genetic engineering and its applications have allowed the development of new tools that are revolutionising the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and cure of diseases.

In the face of this revolution and its potential in these fields, the pharmaceutical and health care industries are increasingly betting on biotech products. The United States, European Union and China are investing millions in using biotechnology to develop medicine.

Worldwide forecast of biotech and conventional pharmaceutical products sales 2008-22

Worldwide biotechnology pharmaceutical sales 2008-22


The incidence of cancer in China is still very high, and the government is trying to tackle the problem by pushing the development of new healing and prevention therapies using biotechnology, in addition to the more traditional ways of treating the disease.

Incidence of new cancer cases in China in 2018
Per cent of all ages

Beijing is also keen to do something about the country’s lack of pharmaceuticals development. Under the ‘Made in China 2025’ strategy unveiled in 2015, specific five- and 10-year targets have been set for Chinese drug firms to make progress on innovation, especially in the areas of biotechnology, developing export markets and import substitution.

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Biotech boom

With targets to be met, the government is spending more on health care – last year more than US$100 billion. It has also been trying to entice talent working overseas to return to China – so far more than two million have answered the call, with around 250,000 from the life sciences field returning in the last six years.


China wants the biotechnology sector to be worth more than 4 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product by 2020. As a result, more biological science research parks are springing up.

Investment in China life-science

Some US$45 billion was invested in biotech companies in China between 2014 and 2017 – more than US$12 billion of it coming from Chinese venture capital and other private firms.

Top Asia-pacific IPOs, 2016


Nanjing-based GenScript’s experimental chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell technology – currently undergoing clinical trials – last year cured 56-year-old American Craig Chase’s life-threatening multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer, in a Nanjing hospital after six weeks of treatment, according to Jiangsu province news website

After trying conventional methods to treat his cancer in the US for three years, Chase volunteered to be the first foreign patient to try the experimental treatment in China. He was the sixth patient to be successfully treated with CAR T-cell therapy at the hospital.

Research into CAR T-cell therapy in China

How CAR T-cell therapy works
Modifications in the T-cells are capable of detecting and acting against a specific antigen. That allows them to recognise tumour cells and attack them, without harming the benign cells.


The CRISPR method is an easier and quicker form of genetic modification. It allows researchers to replace bits of genetic code with a speed and precision unseen in other types of genetic modification. It is used for both human health and for the genetic modification of crops and other biological products. Scientists based in China were the first to test CRISPR gene editing in humans when, in 2016, they inserted edited cells into a patient with aggressive lung cancer during a clinical trial.

Agricultural CRISPR Studies by regions 2014-2017
China is the largest contributor to research in CRISPR systems in plant genome editing, when measured by the percentage of articles published.

CRISPR patents owned
In 2016, China moved closer to the US in terms of the number of registered CRISPR patents, with the two countries being the leaders in the sector.

How CRISPR therapy works


Genes dominate life and are the root cause of human illnesses and death: all diseases are related to genes. Now with advances in biotech, home testing for potential health problems has become possible with just a few clicks on a website, allowing people to see where they might be at risk and from what diseases, and to take preventative measures. Already common in the US, such testing services are expected to grow in China. Here's a look at how they work.

Click to choose    

These tests can be done through a website


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