Trans-Pacific View

The Great US-China Biotechnology and Artificial Intelligence Race

Recent Features

Trans-Pacific View

The Great US-China Biotechnology and Artificial Intelligence Race

Insights from Eleonore Pauwels.

The Great US-China Biotechnology and Artificial Intelligence Race
Credit: Eleonore Pauwels

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. Asia policy.  This conversation with Eleonore Pauwels Director of Biology Collectives and Senior Program Associate, Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C. is the 104th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”  

Explain the motivation behind Chinese investment in U.S. genomics and artificial intelligence (AI).

With large public and private investments inland and in the U.S., China plans to become the next AI-Genomics powerhouse, which indicates that these technologies will soon converge in China.

China’s ambition is to lead the global market for precision medicine, which necessitates acquiring strategic technological and human capital in both genomics and AI. And the country excels at this game. A sharp blow in this U.S.-China competition happened in 2013 when BGI purchased Complete Genomics, in California, with the intent to build its own advanced genomic sequencing machines, therefore securing a technological knowhow mainly mastered by U.S. producers.

There are significant economic incentives behind China’s heavy investment in the increasing convergence of AI and genomics. This golden combination will drive precision medicine to new heights by developing a more sophisticated understanding of how our genomes function, leading to precise, even personalized, cancer therapeutics and preventive diagnostics, such as liquid biopsies. By one estimate, the liquid biopsy market is expected to be worth $40 billion in 2017.

Assess the implications of iCarbonX of Shenzhen’s decision to invest US$100 million in U.S.-company PatientsLikeMe relative to AI and genomic data collection.

iCarbonX is a pioneer in AI software that learns to recognize useful relationships between large amounts of individuals’ biological, medical, behavioral and psychological data. Such a data-ecosystem will deliver insights into how an individual’s genome is mutating over time, and therefore critical information about this individual’s susceptibilities to rare, chronic and mental illnesses. In 2017, iCarbonX invested $100 million in PatientsLikeMe, getting a hold over data from the biggest online network of patients with rare and chronic diseases. If successful, this effort could turn into genetic gold, making iCarbonX one of the wealthiest healthcare companies in China and beyond.

The risk factor is that iCarbonX is handling more than personal data, but potentially vulnerable data as the company uses a smartphone application, Meum, for customers to consult for health advice. Remember that the Chinese nascent genomics and AI industry relies on cloud computing for genomics data-storage and exchange, creating, in its wake, new vulnerabilities associated with any internet-based technology. This phenomenon has severe implications. How much consideration has been given to privacy and the evolving notion of personal data in this AI-powered health economy? And is our cyberinfrastructure ready to protect such trove of personal health data from hackers and industrial espionage? In this new race, will China and the U.S. have to constantly accelerate their rate of cyber and bio-innovation to be more resilient? Refining our models of genomics data protection will become a critical biosecurity issue.

Why is Chinese access to U.S. genomic data a national security concern?    

Genomics and computing research is inherently dual-use, therefore a strategic advantage in a nation’s security arsenal.

Using AI systems to understand how the functioning of our genomes impacts our health is of strategic importance for biodefense. This knowledge will lead to increasing developments at the forefront of medical countermeasures, including vaccines, antibiotics, and targeted treatments relying on virus-engineering and microbiome research. Applying deep learning to genomics data-sets could help geneticists learn how to use genome-editing (CRISPR) to efficiently engineer living systems, but also to treat and, even “optimize,” human health, with potential applications in military enhancements. A $15 million partnership between a U.S. company, Gingko Bioworks, and DARPA aims to genetically design new probiotics as a protection for soldiers against a variety of stomach bugs and illnesses.

China could be using the same deep learning techniques on U.S. genomics data to better comprehend how to develop, patent and manufacture tailored cancer immunotherapies in high demand in the United States. Yet, what if Chinese efforts venture into understanding how to impact key genomics health determinants relevant to the U.S. population? Gaining access to increasingly large U.S. genomic data-sets gives China a knowledge advantage into leading the next steps in bio-military research.

Could biomedical data be used to develop bioweapons? Explain.

Personalized medicine advances mean that personalized bio-attacks are increasingly possible. The combination of AI with biomedical data and genome-editing technologies will help us predict genes most important to particular functions. Such insights will contribute to knowing how a particular disease occurs, how a newly-discovered virus has high transmissibility, but also why certain populations and individuals are more susceptible to it. Combining host susceptibility information with pathogenic targeted design, malicious actors could engineer pathogens that are tailored to overcome the immune system or the microbiome of specific populations.

Identify three indicators of where Chinese investment in biotech and AI is headed.

As indicated by the recent success of the company Cirina, a new market heavily invested by China is the one of liquid biopsies, blood tests that can detect biomarkers for certain cancers early. Defining these genetic markers at personal and population levels with statistical rigor requires significant Chinese investments in AI technologies to power comparative studies of unprecedented scale.

Another golden investment for China is more precise molecular therapeutics, with the company WuXi NextCODE leading one of the largest genomic data platforms using machine-learning to better diagnose and treat rare diseases and cancers.

Finally, a company like iCarbonX demonstrates China’s interest in leading the personalized medicine market, by using the combination of genomics and AI to provide consumers with preventive genomics and physiological monitoring, increased microbiome insights, as well as lifestyle and diets advices.