Challenges Taiwan’s precision medicine industry faces

Medical experts share hurdles Taiwan's precision medicine must overcome for the industry to take off

DNA double helix structure. (Image courtesy of Pixabay user Qimono)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News)—Precision medicine, viewed as a future trend in medicine, falls under the umbrella of Tsai Administration’s Forward-looking infrastructure plan to bolster the nation’s biotech industry.

Precision medicine is defined as personalized and tailored medication based on a person's genetic makeup that might make them more predisposed to certain diseases, and used to find the best treatment for the patient.

Despite various government efforts, Taiwan's precision medicine industry is almost two years behind other countries, said Johnsee Lee (李鐘熙), the Honorary Chairman of the Taiwan Bio Industry Organization (Taiwan BIO) during the Precision Medicine Industry Forum 2017 in Taipei, Wednesday.

A summary of recommended fields for improvement include accelerating the rate of building infrastructure, building a biological knowledge base, build expertise in data interpretation, and building partnerships with health professionals to introduce precision medicine to the clinic, suggested Pui-yan Kwok (郭沛恩), Professor of Dermotaology and Henry Bachrach Distinguished Professor at the Cardiovascular Research Institute at University of California, San Francisco.

One roadblock to development is the limited clinical sample size that Taiwan currently has in precision medicine, and the nation is still in the process of finishing its Biobank to aggregate data taken from blood, urine and even stool samples from 30,000 volunteers.

The biggest hurdle for precision medicine is training physicians in big data analysis, interpreting and decoding the DNA sequence into plain medical language. There are not enough data analysts in Taiwan to cover this complicated task.

Translating the complicated DNA panel coding, a small portion, which might consist of 104 or up to 1010 data of adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine base pairs into medical conditions that can be analyzed by doctors is another challenge, said Chen Hua-Chien (陳華鍵), CEO of ACT Genemoics (行動基因生技).

Missioncare (敏盛醫療) CEO Fred Yang (楊弘仁) noted there was a shortage of data analysts in Taiwan, as the scope of precision medication surpassed what bioinformatic experts can traditionally handle.

Additionally, there are many restrictions placed on the Biobank being built by Academia Sinica since 2014, especially access for private enterprises.

Safeguarding personal medical information that will be uploaded onto cloud servers for public access, will also present challenges in data encryption design.

No one wants their medical records published, but if the cybersecurity level is set too high, it will be difficult for medical and industry experts to access the Biodata base, said  President of Taipei Medical University Yan Yen (閻雲).

Funding is another major issue in the industry, said Glibert Liu (劉永弘), the General Manager of Healthconn, the biotech subsidiary of Foxconn.

Founded three years ago Healthconn plans to utilize Apple assembler Foxconn’s advantages in integrating supply chains in the precision medicine industry.

However, the company questioned how Taiwanese biotech startups can find seed investors, angel investors or even venture capitalists under the nation's financial regulations.

Taiwan's government regulations also block collaboration between education research institutes with the private sector, which can make funding precision medicine research projects very difficult, said Shih Chuan (石全), the head of biotechnology research lab at The National Health Research Institutes (NHRI).

In contrast, it is not uncommon in the U.S., for example, for research institutes to collaborate or receive funding from large enterprises.

"Developing a blockbuster drug to cure a disease can take billions of dollars and years to develop,” he added.

"I think the government should spend less on constructing rail infrastructures and invest more in precision medicine,”said Feipei Lai (賴飛羆), Professor from the Graduate Institute of Biomedical Electronics and Bioinformatics at National Taiwan University.

Moreover, Taiwan faces competition from neighboring China and Korea that are aggressively investing in the field.

"China has included precision medicine as part of its 13-5 year plan, and intends to invest RMB 60 billion (US$8.71 billion) in the industry,” said PricewaterhouseCoopers Taiwan Chairman Chang Ming-Huei (張明輝).

The Chinese government has set up at least 13 precision medical labs in the nation, and has an entire national department dedicated to precision medicine.

The nation also has one of the world’s strictest regulations, preventing any blood samples or analysis results from volunteers participating in their research projects to be taken abroad, commented several industry experts at the forum.

Yang also acknowledged many people do not understand what precision medicine is, or the potential commercial value behind the industry.

"It was only after the popular U.S. genetic hereditary test kit 23andMe was cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on April 7, 2017 for at-home DNA tests of 10 types of inheritable diseases that I realized the commercial potential for DNA sequencing,” said Yang.

According to Yang, the popular ancestry DNA test kit in U.S. gathered a lot of genetic data from consumers and built a large genetics database that pharmaceutical companies have shown high interest in.

The FDA ruling also enables consumers to directly work with the DNA sequencing company instead going through insurance companies that traditionally had a stronghold on medical records and data.