Nation sees big biz in biotech, early cancer detection

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If you ask anyone how to reduce the mortality rate of cancer patients, the answer may vary from person to person. Yet early detection and intervention probably will occur in most people's answers to that question.

New financing events for domestic early cancer screening startups have hit news headlines since the start of the year, despite slides in share prices of many listed biotech companies at home and abroad.

Thanks to population aging and policy support, together with growing public awareness, the early cancer screening market in China will continue to expand, and domestic enterprises are expected to further strengthen their innovation and commercialization capabilities, experts and business leaders said.

Shi Lichen, founder of medical consulting firm Beijing Dingchen Consultancy, said cancer is a top killer in China, and boundless opportunities have been presented for early cancer detection industry players because they also target healthy people rather than just cancer patients.

"Chinese authorities have reiterated on various occasions the importance of early detection and intervention for the prevention and control of cancer. The market prospects are very promising," he said.

In a new plan to spur the bioeconomy during the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-25), the National Development and Reform Commission said it is necessary to promote deep integration of advanced technologies such as genetic testing and disease prevention, and to carry out early screening programs for major diseases, including tumors.

A report by early detection information provider Zao Dx said 26 financing events were announced last year in China's early cancer detection industry, among which 15 came at more than 100 million yuan ($14.92 million) each. The combined value of financing reached more than 6.6 billion yuan last year.

Zhou Jun, CEO of Berry Oncology, a leading Chinese company in genetic testing and early screening of tumors, said a root cause for investors' sustained enthusiasm for early cancer screening is that although various innovative therapies have been made available in the market in recent years for cancer, once the disease progresses to the middle and late stages, the benefits from drugs will become very limited, while related expenditures at both the individual level and the society level can be huge.

In particular, the application of liquid biopsy technology based on high-throughput sequencing has greatly increased the probability of the detection and early intervention of cancer, he said.

"With the commercial application of next-generation sequencing, we can enable alerts for tumors at a very early stage," he said.

However, analysts said large-scale rollouts of early cancer screening in China require improvements in not only cancer screening technology and policy support, but also in payments, clinical applications and regulations to spur the commercialization of related products.

"As domestic players started almost at the same time as their foreign counterparts, their overall competence in developing new solutions is somehow of the same level as foreign enterprises," said Shi of Beijing Dingchen Consultancy.

"Yet the differences will present themselves among the capabilities to commercialize products," Shi said, adding major obstacles Chinese enterprises face for successful commercialization mainly include not only how to improve product efficacy and reduce pricing, but also how to get included in public or commercial medical insurance programs.

According to a report by Haitong International Securities Group Ltd, China's early cancer detection market will reach more than 162 billion yuan in value within 10 years.

A report by VCBeat Research said about 70% of Chinese cancer patients are already at the middle-to-late stage of the disease when they seek medical advice for the first time.

Zhou, with Berry Oncology, said both central and local Chinese authorities have released guidelines and policies to create better development conditions for the industry. However, more detailed rules for better implementation of those guidelines and policies are expected to help enterprises realize the commercialization of their research and innovations.

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