Michael J. Donovan, a member of the Weihong Tan Research Group, received his B.S. in biochemistry from the University of Florida and his M.Sci. in biomedical engineering from Hunan University. He has the distinction of being the first American to receive a degree in the life sciences from Hunan University. He has resided and worked in China for the past 6.5 years. Mr. Donovan founded a biotech company in Changsha, China (www.veraptus.com) for the purpose of developing aptamer-based moieties for immunotherapy applications and to serve as a bridge for Western and Chinese companies to collaborate and develop novel treatments.
The following has been paraphrased from an interview with Michael Donovan on January 30, 2018.
(Click here for the full audio version)
What are some of the biggest differences between the biomedical field in China vs. America?
Six years ago the industry was primarily focused on generics, then the government in China launched their 1000 talents program to attract returning Chinese scientists. That was one of the big differences, these centrally planned initiatives, backed by heavy investment, to attract talent. Bringing them back to work in China with the skills they gained in the US, and also to train local scientists, has really enabled China to catch up quickly. Though when it comes to basic science and basic research, the US is still quite a bit ahead. China is focused more on how to apply the science, getting things from the lab, through clinical trials, and into the market. They are really hungry to have Chinese-developed technology become global, which they are on the cusp of achieving.
How does the regulatory environment in China compare to that of the US?
There have been a number of reforms over the past decade to bring China’s regulatory standards up to Western standards. There are companies here, like Wuxi AppTec, that have been working with large Western companies and learning what the standards in Europe and the US are. Now, there is much more competition in China to deliver not only these kinds of clinical services but also higher levels of care, that has brought with it a more stringent regulatory environment.
But, there are still certain ethical issues that come up, for example the recent cloning of monkeys, that raised a few eyebrows in the US. The thinking in China is that mice are not good indicators of if a certain drug will work in humans, so they developed these monkeys to test molecules on believing they will translate better into humans. In these kinds of areas China is able to push the boundaries beyond what the West can do.
Would you say that people’s fears in the West over China’s comparatively lax safety standards are valid?
That is a valid concern, in the rush to become a dominant global player in this field, some trials might get pushed a little too aggressively. But if you look in the main biotech hubs here, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Wuhan, and Changsha, they are starting to really do their due diligence to ensure that trials are safe. They also recognize with some of these novel treatments that it is important to get things right the first time, otherwise they could have a huge public image disaster like they had with certain stem cell therapies in the past that really set things back here. They try to balance an aggressive pace with ensuring reasonable standards, and as they move forward they will be bringing in more American standards.
Are you noticing the big gap between the science communities in the West and China starting to shrink?
There is a lot more collaboration going on nowadays between various universities in the West and those in China. There are also a lot more student exchanges going on, which are certainly helping to bridge that gap. I have found that Chinese scientists are quite open to collaborations, particularly with American universities. I would like to see more going on, as China does have some strengths, particularly in being able to do some pre-clinical studies at a more reasonable price, also their facilities for doing these studies in are fantastic. I would like to see more Western scientists reach out to Chinese scientists for more collaboration.
Would you say that the Chinese biotech industry will be equal to, or at least competitive with, the American biotech industry within 10-15 years?
I think it is going to be faster than that. If you look at CAR-T cell therapy (a relatively new form of immunotherapy used to treat Cancer), China already has a number of different treatments that you can get right now that are already on-par, in terms of results, with the big players in the West. The difference is that in China they can charge a fraction of the price. In terms of what is available to patients, I think that within the next 5 years to 10 years China will be on-par with the US, if not beyond the US. There are also a lot of good CRISPR therapies already being utilized in hospitals as well.
This advance will also come from the push from Beijing to develop artificial intelligence technologies. That technology is going to have a wide array of effects in the biomedical field, one example is that it will allow for better genomic analysis. Also, China is on pace to invest more than double what the US is investing in late-stage biotechnologies, which are technologies ready to go to the market. Though the US is investing a lot more in basic science.
As the world gets smaller, patients, whether they have Parkinson’s or Cancer, aren’t going to really care too much about where the treatments originate, they just want the best standard of care. I foresee that within the next few years patients from the West will actually start coming to China to receive treatments.