Stem cell technology is one of the most exciting and controversial fields of medical research. Exciting because some doctors believe it could be used to create cures for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injuries. Controversial because human embryos can be destroyed to harvest stem cells (though that is less of a concern now techniques are improving for harvesting them from adults or umbilical cords). Other critics believe stem cell research could be used to make human cloning easier.
In the US, President Bush has opposed the use of federal funds for any stem cell research involving embryos. And even in Europe research can only progress in line with public opinion. But such ethical issues do not figure in China, and that is why many believe the country could power ahead in this field.
Since 2005, Beike, headquartered in Shenzhen, has been funding research, patenting new techniques for harvesting adult stem cells, and rolling out treatments. Business is booming: Beike forecasts revenue of $10m (€7m) this year, rising to $30m (€21m) in 2008 as patient numbers surge, especially from Europe and the US. They are going to Beike clinics – often against the advice of doctors – because their own countries have yet to approve treatments (and may never do so) or prices are sky high. And many of these medical tourists are simply desperate for help. This means that Beike and other companies like it are regarded as quacks in some quarters.
So are China’s stem-cell companies courageous pioneers or are their treatments unproven and perhaps even dangerous? Monocle quizzes one of the country’s best know stem cell firms.
Monocle:Are stem cells going to change the healthcare business radically?
Dr Sean Hu: It will completely change the medical industry. It will influence people’s lives more than IT. Think of anti-ageing, think of cosmetics [without surgery], think of how many diseases can be treated by stem cells. If you can prolong your life for 10 years or delay ageing by 10 years, how much would you pay?
M:Why is China emerging as the big player in stem cell treatments?
SH: In China we have fewer religious or ethical concerns, that gives us an advantage. China regulates stem cells as a clinical application, not a drug, because it’s an individual therapy, like a bone marrow transplant. So the big venture capitalists are looking for opportunities in China.
M:What are the main conditions you treat?
SH: Spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy, ataxia, those are the most common ones. For ataxia we now see very good results, multiple sclerosis too, and also some optical nerve problems.
M:How many patients are you treating?
SH: About 40 foreign patients and 100 Chinese patients a month. Our three treatment centres for foreign patients are booked until January. Now we have 11 treatment centres in China and we have just opened one in Thailand.
M:What do patients pay?
SH: It’s around $20,000 (€14,000) for one course of treatment over 25 to 30 days. Everything’s covered: the MRI and CAT scans, the rehabilitation, and four stem cell injections. At Stamford Hospital [California], it will cost you at least $3,000 [€2,100] a day; many people pay up to $6,000, so I think we’re cheap.
M:How do you feel about press reports suggesting companies such as yours are exploiting the sick?
SH: It’s understandable when a new technology comes out that there will be many sceptical people. But we’re confident. That’s why we’re trying to do controlled, double-blind studies. You have to remember we are dealing with patients with incurable diseases. Of course we’re not talking about cures. We have to face the fact that we cannot help 100 per cent of patients; even getting 25 per cent returning for more treatments is very good.
M:One report suggests that patients are feeling the placebo effect which disappears when they return home. Is that accurate?
SH: Without controlled, double-blind studies there is always a question of placebo. We are trying to collaborate with US institutions, at least two will come to visit us in November to conduct such studies. We could do it by ourselves, but it will be criticised. In any case look at cerebral palsy kids, they are kids, they are not likely to think they’re getting better, but they see improvements which don’t go away. Or take people with optical nerve problems, it cannot be a placebo when they regain their vision. US doctors have confirmed this.
M:How do you deal with ethical controversies over stem cells taken from embryos?
SH: We are not using embryonic stem cells, because they are controversial. We collect stem cells either from the bone marrow of the patient or from [umbilical] cord blood after a birth.
M:Do the ethical objectors have a point?
SH: If we talk about embryonic stem cells it’s understandable that people object on ethical or religious grounds. But if we talk about adult autologous [bone marrow] or cord blood stem cells I don’t see how there can be an ethical or religious problem. For example, placentas are just thrown away anyway.
M:Has China got what it takes to pioneer stem cell treatments for the mass market?
SH: It’s difficult because the stem cell growth factors are very expensive. In the future, when the growth factors become cheaper and the technology is more common, when the manufacturers scale up, then these treatments could become widely available.
M:Where does the government come in?
SH: For example we just got 30 million renminbi [€2.8 million] from the government for a joint lab with Qinghua University graduate school in Shenzhen. Stem cells are at the top of the government’s research priorities. The Shenzhen government is also trying to create a strong research capacity. They have built a university town, giving facilities for free and grants to universities that open here.
M:Why is the government backing this technology? Does it see an opportunity to get ahead of the West?
SH: It’s not just the Chinese government that is looking at stem cells; all governments are. In 20 years stem cells are going to be bigger than the whole pharmaceutical industry. Stem cells, for example, have a very strong anti-ageing effect. The Japanese government views this as a huge opportunity to take a lead. Government support in the UK is very good. There are about 500 stem cell projects in the US going for clinical trials.
M:What do you find exciting about working in China at the moment?
SH: We’re not far behind researchers in other countries. Regarding ethical and religious views, we have an advantage. China is in a very good position, and we would like to capitalise on this advantage. China itself is a very big market. The technology we develop here, including the clinical experience, would be nice to share with other countries. It’s good for us to share the experience.
M:How does Beike apply research commercially? What’s the model?
SH: We are trying to focus on downstream, on trying to build the biggest network between the treatment centres and the laboratories, creating channels. We have doctors and nurses familiar with the stem cell therapies, and we can use our network to collaborate with researchers elsewhere. We have established seven laboratories in China and have already established good relationships with universities in the US and the UK.
M:What’s next for Beike?
SH: For next year I hope we will reach 20 to 25 treatment centres in China. Overseas I see three or four treatment centres. We have opened in Bangkok and we will open in Bangalore, eastern Europe and Central America.
Dr Sean Hu
1967 Born Guizhou, China
1991 Visiting scholar at Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology
1998 PhD awarded by Gothenburg University’s department of biochemistry and molecular biology
2000 Returns to China on learning patients there are receiving experimental stem cell treatments
2005 Beike launches first lab and starts to offer treatments
2006 Hu and investors buy Beike shares from Beijing University, Hong Kong University of Science & Technology and the Shenzhen government
2007 First overseas clinic opens at Piyavate Hospital, Bangkok
2007 Hu prepares to open treatment centres in India and Central America in 2008