Despite being home to more than half the world’s population and some of its most dynamic economies, Asia hasn’t traditionally been at the forefront of health-care innovation. Sure the continent has some of the largest markets for pharmaceuticals. But when it comes to blazing new trails on the treatments of tomorrow, Asia has lagged.
There are signs, though, that’s starting to change. Increasingly affluent — and rapidly aging — populations are demanding better care and investors are becoming more adventurous. Although many of Asia’s health-care innovations are at a nascent stage, and their success isn’t guaranteed, they do have the backing of governments keen to build cutting-edge medical technologies.
Here are some of the big health-care trends and innovations in Asia that are worth tracking in 2018 and beyond.
The DNA Hunt
Chinese researchers are tapping vast troves of data to make strides in precision medicine, an emerging science that customizes treatments to a patient’s genetics and characteristics. That’s putting the country ahead in the hot field of genomics.
Genomics is the mapping of genes to provide information like a person’s risk for a disease, or how they’ll take to particular medicines. Trouble is, detecting patterns requires analyzing the genomes of large numbers of people. That’s where the Chinese have an advantage.
Where the British government is working to sequence 100,000 of their citizens’ whole genomes, and the U.S. is sequencing 1 million genomes, China is sequencing 100 million, points out Laura Nelson Carney, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein. “What’s a little different in China is that there’s no big brother fear of who has my data,” she said. “People assume, of course the government has it, and owns it, and I want to know.”
That comfort and an interest in tapping genetic sequencing for preventative medicine has helped private companies like Shenzhen-based BGI to amass huge databases of their own, Nelson Carney says. Another Chinese firm, iCarbonX, is working on layering data from medical records and behavior on top of its analysis of a person’s genome to provide more personalized medical advice, she notes.
When it comes to health care, the future of robotics may lie in the human brain rather than an artificial one. Scientists are hunting for ways to create robotic body parts that can be controlled as reflexively as biological ones to help amputees and others with disabilities.
Research at the University of Melbourne, for instance, has resulted in the spinoff of a startup called Bionic Vision Technologies. The company is looking to commercialize a method to restore sight to the blind. It uses a device consisting of a camera, a pair of glasses, an externally worn vision processing unit, and an electrode array that would be implanted behind the retina. Another Australian startup, Monash Vision Group, is developing a bionic eye system which interfaces directly with the brain.
Another technology to come out of the University of Melbourne could be a step toward creating a full cyborg. It involves an electrode implanted in a blood vessel next to the part of the brain that controls movement. The method could be used to control a robot exoskeleton that would allow paralyzed people to walk again.
Construction of Plant 3 inside the Samsung BioLogics headquarters and production facilities in Songdo district in Incheon, South Korea.
Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg
These days, the world’s most sophisticated therapies for diseases like cancer and arthritis are biologics — drugs made from living cells or proteins. Asia is emerging at the forefront of manufacturing these medicines as well as their cheaper versions, called biosimilars. In South Korea, companies like Samsung BioLogics Co., an arm of the country’s most famous conglomerate, have sprawling plants with the high-tech capabilities needed to mass produce such complex therapies for international pharma companies. China’s Wuxi Biologics (Cayman) Inc. is another big player in the space.
Some Asian countries are going further than anyone else in harnessing the power of big data for medical care. For instance, Taiwan has been a leader in Asia in digitizing medical records and that’s allowed researchers at the Taiwan National University Hospital to leverage reams of data in interesting ways, according to Isaac Ho, chief executive officer of venture capital fund Venturecraft Group. He says the researchers can analyze records of patients’ treatment as they are generated to decide on nutritional supplements that can be targeted by age, disease and medical history.
In China, meanwhile, health-care apps like WeDoctor and Ping An Insurance Group’s Good Doctor are expanding into brick-and-mortar hospitals to provide end-to-end coverage for patients, from their first online inquiries to a hospital stay. That allows companies to collect data along the way and provide more personalized care.
Japanese companies are attempting to build on a Nobel Prize-winning discovery by Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka, who found that any human cell can be genetically reprogrammed to an embryonic state. Firms like Fujifilm Holdings Corp. and Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. have been developing banks of such “universal” cells.
Businesses and scientists have clinical trials planned to try out new therapies using this technology, targeting everything from Parkinson’s disease to spinal cord injuries.