China’s $9 billion effort to beat the U.S. in genetic testing
By Ylan Q. Mui
Dec 30 2016
BOSTON — Lindsay Weekes knew something was wrong as soon as her son was born.
Her pregnancy had been easy. The baby was a strapping 6 pounds, 12 ounces, with thick, curly black hair like his father’s. But from the first moment Quinlan drew air, Lindsey could see he was tense, his muscles rigid.
Within 24 hours, Quinlan was whisked away from their hospital to an intensive care unit at a nearby medical university. There he began a battery of tests in hopes of diagnosing his disorder, the start of a tortuous journey that has thrust the family into the center of a global economic race to push the limits of medicine.
The search for an answer has taken Quinlan to the cutting edge of the emerging field: the use of genomics, the study of our DNA, to tailor health care. The United States has long been the the industry’s undisputed leader, performing much of the research that first decoded our DNA about 15 years ago.
But now China is emerging as America’s fiercest competitor, and it is sinking billions of dollars into research and funding promising new companies both at home and abroad — including a laboratory that handles some of the toughest cases at Boston Children’s Hospital, where Quinlan has become a favorite of the staff.
Finding an answer for Quinlan and children like him relies as much on Chinese expertise as it does American ingenuity. One of the founders of the lab was born and trained in China before immigrating to the United States. Chinese company WuXi NextCODE is one of its chief investors, and researchers there use WuXi’s programs to analyze the reams of data inside our DNA.
Under President-elect Donald Trump, America’s relationship with China has been defined by frustration over the loss of factory jobs in the nation’s industrial heartland to the assembly lines of the world’s second-largest economy. But experts say it is the battle for dominance in innovation and science that is more likely to determine the economy of the future.
“I’m very frustrated at how aggressively China is investing in this space while the U.S. is not moving with the same kind of purpose,” said Eric Schadt, director of the Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology at Mount Sinai. “China has established themselves as a really competitive force.”
For the Weekes family, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
“There’s some missing piece of the puzzle that we need to find right now,” Lindsay Weekes said.