China to power WuXi NextCODE, the Google of human genome data

Beijing’s artificial intelligence ambitions and interest in clinical applications will help company stay ahead of competition

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 November, 2017, 3:42pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 November, 2017, 8:58pm

WuXi NextCODE (WXNC), a genomic data pioneer based in Shanghai, Cambridge, Massachusetts and Reykjavik, is leading the charge in helping pharmaceutical companies and others in health care unravel the promise of the human genome, first mapped and identified in 2003.

The company, acquired by Shanghai and US-based WuXi AppTec in 2015 and merged with AppTec’s Genome Centre in Shanghai, uses a proprietary platform to cut the “diagnostic odyssey” for someone with a rare disease to a matter of hours.

Its co-founder and CEO, Hannes Smarason, says WXNC’s tool does for medical researchers and clinicians what Google’s search engine did for internet users nearly two decades ago.

Each human genome has 3.2 billion “bases”, or bits of information, requiring about 150 gigabytes of storage. WXNC’s “genomically ordered relational database”, or GORdb, was designed specifically to store and analyse huge amounts of genetic code and index new genetic variations from genomes sequenced by the company, its partners and in every public data resource.

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“For the first time, technology has really come together in a unique way to enable an entirely new industry around low-cost data generation on people’s sequences. Together with the computational power and the emergence of artificial intelligence [AI], to then make sense of and use that information for a variety of purposes is really opening up this market to significant disruption,” Smarason said.

“The difference between GORdb and other databases is that while they’re all relational databases, ours has a specific frame of reference – position on the genome – that facilitates the management of massive amounts of data on a genetic scale,” said Dr Jeffrey Gulcher, one of WXNC’s founders.

WXNC has also built partnerships with many of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, including Novartis, Abbvie and Bristol-Myers Squibb, as well as medical institutions such as Boston Children’s Hospital and Peking Union Medical College Hospital. And all the genetic code sequenced by WXNC and its partners has essentially created the world’s largest genetic “knowledge base”.

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“I think NextCODE is more sophisticated than [other genomics algorithms available publicly] and might have some more elegant interfaces and data access capabilities and analysis capabilities, and so from that perspective it’s probably a pretty good platform,” said Alan Louie, research director for the life sciences practice at IDC, a market intelligence group based in Framingham, Massachusetts.

The company is developing applications that may give doctors the ability to diagnose more prevalent illnesses with greater accuracy, and to pharmaceutical companies the ability to develop more effective treatments for these.

Thomas Chittenden, founding director of the WuXi NextCODE Advanced Artificial Intelligence Research Laboratory, said: “Soon what we want to be able to do is take your blood and look at it, and if there’s any circulating DNA that’s been shed by a tumour we’re getting to the point where we can identify the variety with 99.5 per cent accuracy.”

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While WXNC’s knowledge base, presence in the world’s largest markets and database architecture distinguish the company, others, such as Beijing-based BGI and San Diego, California-based Illumina and Madison, New Jersey-based Quest Diagnostics offer some of the same services.

Others say WXNC’s presence in China will keep it ahead of whatever competition it faces.

WXNC has been selling consumer-oriented products for more than a year in China, the only country where it makes such products available. Its line-up consists of FamilyCODE, a carrier test for prospective parents, RareCODE, a rare disease diagnostic product for children and HealthCODE, which provides a report showing relative risk for 28 common diseases.

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“One of the reasons we chose WuXi NextCODE is that it’s one of the very few companies in China that can access China and other global markets,” said Trency Gu, vice-president at Sequoia Capital China, which led a consortium that recently provided US$240 million in financing for WXNC.

“WuXi NextCODE is offering products with clear clinical demand.”

Investors in the latest financing round also included Singapore’s Temasek Holdings, Yunfeng Capital, founded by Alibaba Group Holding chairman Jack Ma Yun, and 3W Partners.

The case for developing the market for AI-leveraged genomic informatics in China is twofold.

First, China aims to become a global AI leader by 2030. That kind of support bodes well for WXNC considering that one of its next steps is to release a software development kit for its platform in a bid to create “an app store”, for which others can also develop applications.

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WXNC also says it has seen interest among administrations at all levels in China for the use of its tools as a matter of public health.

In the meantime, the recent funding round will help WXNC grow worldwide. It plans to use the proceeds “to accelerate the extension of its platform infrastructure and to bring new users and data on board through precision medicine and diagnostics partnerships; the commercialisation of its consumer solutions for the China market”, according to a statement.

As this acceleration happens, growth in WXNC’s platform may drive change in medical treatments along the lines of the hopes people had when the human genome was first decoded.

“I would argue that we will have a much greater understanding of the human genome within the next five years and there will be value in having that data down the road,” IDC’s Louie said.

Alibaba Group owns the South China Morning Post.

A longer version of this article appeared in the November issue of The Peak magazine, available by invitation and at selected bookstores.