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Does China Have a Cancer Research Advantage?

With fewer government restrictions, researchers in China are advancing cancer research faster and more successfully than in the US or anywhere else. 

Specifically, an experimental procedure being used in China is literally “curing” patients of the dreaded disease. It is a gene therapy known as Chimeric Antigen Receptor-T cells or CAR-T, and it’s being hailed as one of the most exciting developments in the quest to cure cancer. 

First developed by Israeli scientist Zelig Eshhar in the 1980s, CAR-T re-works the genes of the body’s own immune cells so that they actively seek out and destroy cancer cells. While it’s been embraced by researchers and drugmakers around the world, perhaps nowhere is CAR-T having more impact — and being pushed dangerously close to its limits — than in China, home to the world’s biggest cancer population and some of the most ambitious experiments designed to tackle the disease.

CAR-T works by supercharging T-cells, the body’s main line of defense against disease so that they latch onto and destroy cancer. In clinical trials, leukemia patients who failed to respond to other therapies have shown remission rates of over 90% within two months of treatment.

CAR-T has been around since 2017, but the Chinese have taken it to a new level by making the therapy a lot faster and a lot cheaper. Current trials by Big Pharma in the US involving CAR-T are very expensive and time-consuming, taking weeks if not months to create the genetically modified t-cells. However, a startup company in China, Gracell, has developed a process using genetic engineering that speeds up the cell production stage, according to founder William Cao Wei. Gracell plans to price its CAR-T treatment for about 500,000 yuan ($71,000), well below the $475,000 price tag for Novartis’ Kymriah, the Swiss company’s CAR-T therapy used to treat the type of blood cancer that Zhang had. A similar treatment from Gilead, based in Foster City, California, costs $373,000.

The Shanghai-based company — set up by a group of veteran Chinese cell-therapy researchers — says it can literally create cancer-killing immune cells overnight!

Emboldened by the government’s push to become a scientific superpower and to dominate the field of genetics, Gracell and other Chinese biotech startups are racing ahead, with China likely to approve CAR-T for widespread use as early as next year.

One of the reasons that China can forge ahead with CAR-T and other breakthrough cancer treatments faster and cheaper than the West is the lack of the strict oversight that governs drug discovery and experimental procedures in more democratic nations.

China’s loosening the framework for medical innovation is reminiscent of its wider approach to the regulation of science, an area President Xi Jinping has prioritized as part of his ambition to cement the country as a world power.

Is There Cause for Concern With the Chinese Approach?

But such innovations do not come without a cost. Critics of the Chinese framework say that the regulations in place by the FDA and similar organizations in the US, Europe, and Israel are there for a reason – to save lives and protect public health.

Critics point to the research of He Jiankui, an American-educated Chinese scientist whose revelation last year that he’d edited the genes of twin baby girls ignited a global firestorm was signed off by the ethics committee of a Shenzhen hospital. The experiment, which He claimed made the twins immune to HIV, wasn’t backed by peer-reviewed data and still hasn’t been verified. Scientists around the world have condemned it as an irresponsible use of a technology that has the capacity to alter the very building blocks of life. The long-term effects of Crispr, the gene-snipping tool used by He and embraced by Chinese researchers, are also yet to be fully understood.

China’s new draft rules on CAR-T could give rise to the same scenario, critics say.

Written by Bill Sheridan

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