China’s Genome-Mapping Giant BGI Is Poised to Become an International Leader in Gene Sequencing and May Play Major Role in Interpretation of Genetic Test Results
However, China has a shortage of well-trained pathologists, which is why some American lab organizations are establishing medical lab testing ventures in China
If experts are right, a company in China is poised to become the world’s largest at gene sequencing. In addition, the huge volume of genetic data it generates is expected to give this company the world’s largest database of genetic information.
Such developments could mean that, in just a few years, many pathologists and molecular Ph.D.s in the United States will be accessing this trove of genetic data as they conduct research to identify new biomarkers or work with clinical specimens.
The company at the center of all this attention is genome-sequencing giant BGI, located in Shenzhen, China. It owns 230 of the largest, high-throughput gene-sequencing machines and wants to become the world’s largest genome-mapping company.
Launched in 1999 as the Beijing Genomics Institute, BGI’s first success was a small role in the International Human Genome Project, the only developing nation to do so. That initial foray onto the world stage was followed by a string of achievements, including sequencing the rice genome, which landed BGI on the cover of the journal Science.
BGI has also carried out research on the SARS virus and E. coli, contributed to the International Human HapMap Project, and mapped the genomes of species ranging from the giant panda to 40 types of silkworms, according to a story in The New Yorker. Identifying the genes associated with extremely high I.Q. is among the company’s latest goals.
“We represent a new model of an international Chinese organization,” stated BGI Director Wang Jun, Ph.D., in a recent article in the Financial Times. “China has a legitimate shot to be a lead player on the international stage. Our technology can change the world.”
Becoming a Major Player in Gene-Mapping
The company’s footprint has grown since it moved its headquarters in 2007 to Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong. In addition, to the 4,000 employees at its main facility, BGI has labs in Hong Kong, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, University of California Davis, Vancouver Prostate Center, and the European Genome Research Center in Copenhagen, Denmark.
BGI became a major player in genomic research in 2010 when it purchased 128 of San Diego-based Illumina’s (NASDAQ:ILMN) then state-of-the-art DNA sequencing machines, each of which came with a half-million dollar price tag, according to the MIT Technology Review. Today, it owns more than 230 sequencers from several manufacturers, a collection of technology that enables BGI to sequence 30,000 human genomes a year, the BGI Americas website states.
Sharing Its Findings with the World
BGI, with its research and service divisions, is creating a gigantic repository of genomic sequencing information. What will come of those mountains of data? The New Yorker article indicates the company may share its findings with the world scientific community, replicating the openness it exhibited in 2011 when BGI sequenced the deadly E. coli outbreak in Germany in three days and tweeted the results to the public.
In February, BGI was among 70 organizations, including the Broad Institute of MIT, Harvard, the Wellcome Trust, and the National Institutes of Health, that formed an alliance to improve how genomic and clinical data are managed and shared. This collaboration may eventually lead to creation of “standards and technology for sharing big data from sequencing on a global scale,” a recent article in FierceBiotechIT states.
“Big data has the potential to play an important role in the transformation of medical care,” Peteris Zilgalvis, J.D.,, head of Unit ICT for Health and Well-being in the European Commission, stated in a brief in HIMSS Insights.
Chinese Dominance in the Genomics Marketplace
Yet concerns remain that the Chinese government may shut the door on the free flow of information out of BGI.
“BGI has often said that all such data will be shared,” Michael Specter wrote in The New Yorker. “There is no reason to believe that anyone there has any other goal. It is possible, though, that the government won’t leave the choice in the company’s hand.”
The genomic landscape changed in 2013 when BGI paid $117 million to buy Complete Genomics, a California-based competitor to Illumina. This created concern that BGI, the “world’s biggest consumer of sequencing technology,” could “become one of its principal providers,” Spector said in the New Yorker article.
Since American biologist James Watson, Ph.D., and English physicist Francis Crick, Ph.D., O.M., F.R.S., discovered the helical structure of DNA in 1953, the United States has held a pre-eminent position in genomic research. Illumina CEO Jay Flatley, who has navigated his sequencing platform company to a leadership position, is leery of its rising Asian rival.
“We think they are working hard to establish Chinese dominance in this market, which for the United States would be bad news,” he told The New Yorker. “It’s one thing to sell Coke and another to sell the formula for Coke. And when they bought Complete Genomics what they were allowed to do is buy the formula.”
BGI, however, will have some catching up to do. A year ago, Illumina launched two new platforms, the NextSeq500 System, a $250,000 machine that can sequence a human genome and up to 16 exomes in a single day, and can switch to lower throughput sequencing when needed, and the HiSeq X Ten Sequencing System, a new high-throughput platform that Flatley says delivers on the long-sought goal of producing a human genome for under $1,000.
“It is rare that you find a company that has 80% to 90% share of anything and is driving the technology so fast that nobody can catch up,” stated Cathie Wood, chief investment officer at ARK Investment Management, in a Forbes magazine story that looked at Illumina’s growth and stock performance in recent years.
The emergence of a Chinese company as a world leader in the field of gene sequencing and genomic big data is consistent with the progress Chinese companies are making in many different fields and industries. At the same time, China’s healthcare system has major deficiencies, particularly in having adequate numbers of pathologists.
The shortage of trained pathologists in China is one reason why a number of pathology and medical laboratory organizations in the United States are establishing joint ventures with Chinese organizations. The goal is to provide sophisticated clinical laboratory testing services in selected Chinese cities.
At some future point, these medical laboratory collaborations will probably also involved genetic testing and the interpretation of genetic data for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. As that happens, BGI’s steadily-growing warehouse of genetic data may make it the “go to” player for these applications.
—Andrea Downing Peck