Hong Kong could become a hub for genetics-based drugs discovery. Just one hitch – would Beijing stand in way?
- Beijing bans export of human genetics data, citing national security concerns
Without mainland data, envisioned database would be of limited use
Hong Kong could become a regional centre for genetic data sharing that spurs discovery of breakthrough drugs. But the idea faces a huge roadblock: China’s export restrictions on its human genetics data.
Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corp. (HKSTP) is considering a proposal by Hong Kong-based cancers genetic screening services provider Sanomics of building a major database of genetic information at the planned Lok Ma Chau Loop Innovation and Technology Park – and is taking steps to get others on board, the South China Morning Post has learned. HKSTP itself has proposed to build a genetic database at the existing operating technology park in Sha Tin.
The park will be located next to the border of Hong Kong and Shenzhen on on which the land ownership had been under dispute for many years, until both sides agreed two years ago that Hong Kong actually owns the land that the two cities will use to co-develop a technology park for start-ups.
Hong Kong, though part of China, is a special administrative region given much autonomy. So, lawyers and other experts argue, it would need permission from Beijing to use genetic data about mainland Chinese in its database.
Beijing restricts the export of such data, stipulating it must be stored, processed and analysed in China because of national security concerns. Six Chinese and foreign organisations have been penalised by Beijing recently for “improper” collection, trading and export of Chinese genetic information.
“Hong Kong, if it can be set up as being ‘inside China’, then may satisfy both the Chinese government requirements and international firms’ preferences,” said Shanghai-based Helen Chen, head of L.E.K. Consulting’s China bio-pharmaceuticals and life sciences practice.
As a first step, HKSTP wants to build a genetic database in the Sha Tin park for the benefit of the close to 100 biotech-related firms’ use in the park and potential users like pharmaceutical firms and researchers. A much bigger deal would be building a major database that international companies would flock to at the coming Lok Ma Chau park.
But getting access to mainland data is key. Without it, the database would only be useful to local firms and maybe a small number of international firms.
“If the transfer of genetic data from the mainland to Hong Kong was allowed, it would definitely be an advantage to Hong Kong to play a potential role in bridging the gap between mainland China data and overseas data, as it can potentially promote Hong Kong as a hub for genetic-related research,” said Hogan Lovells’ patent and trademark lawyer Andrew Cobden.
Genetic data, even in raw format with data owners de-identified, is lucrative to drug developers.
Global pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline this year paid US$300 million for an undisclosed stake in genetic tests provider California-based 23andme, which has more than 5 million customers. As part of the deal, GSK also gained exclusive access to the data for research on new medicines for four years.
Stanley Sy Ming-yiu, the chief executive of Sanomics, told the Post that HKSTP has proposed building the Sha Tin facility to house a database of genetic data from Hong Kong and overseas, to be shared with pharmaceutical firms and medical researchers.
“The corporation has consulted stakeholders, including us. My view is that once a pilot database has been successfully run in Sha Tin, it can be replicated in the future Lok Ma Chau Loop park,” Sy said.
“Having a large database is key to attract start-ups, pharmaceutical firms and research institutes to analyse the data and come up with innovative products and solutions. But this needs to be carefully regulated given data protection concerns,” he said.
The Lok Ma Chau Loop park is envisioned as an 87-hectare technology development zone at the border of Hong Kong and Shenzhen that will be four times larger than the one in Sha Tin. The Hong Kong government has set aside HK$20 billion (US$2.6 billion) to build infrastructure for the park, which will take more than seven years to finish.
Hong Kong has a clear legal framework governing the collection, retention, use, security and access to personal data, including genetic data.
Sy said four-year-old Sanomics, which provides cancer patients’ blood tests to help doctors identify genetic mutations and determine treatment options, will be keen to use the database to conduct data analysis as part of its business diversification.
It is backed by US$10 million in funding from investors including Chow Tai Fook Enterprises – parent of listed conglomerate New World Development – and Shenzhen-listed non-invasive DNA prenatal testing firm Berry Genomics Co.
“The most profitable part of the genetic screening supply chain is the testing equipment, whose production is dominated by a few western firms,” he said. “The other area where we can create value is results interpretation and analysis.
“Here the key is a comprehensive database on which machine learning can be used to extract insights for new medical applications. But a lack of linkage of mainland China and overseas data means there is missing piece in the genomic spectrum,” he said.
A spokesman for Hong Kong’s Innovation and Technology Bureau said it is open to the proposal of establishing a genetic data centre to facilitate healthcare research, provided it complies with relevant regulations and ethical standards.
She noted the Steering Committee on Genomic Medicine, set up last year to lead the study on strategies for developing genomic medicine in Hong Kong, has proposed conducting a large-scale genome sequencing project in the city, and the Food and Health Bureau has set up an expert group to finalise the details.