Cancer battle brings China, US together in tech-aided push

Despite the differences and tensions between the United States and China, the fight against cancer remains a bright spot where the two countries can collaborate to benefit not only the two peoples, but also the whole world, health experts said.

It is "a no-brainer" for the US and China — the top two countries in terms of cancer burden — to work together against a common enemy, said Bob Li, an oncologist and drug development scientist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He made the comment during a recent conference held by Asia Society Northern California to examine US-China relations.

His institution has been partnering with academic institutions and biopharmaceutical companies in China to accelerate international clinical trials to cure cancer.

"It makes a real difference to collaborate with China, especially for R&D investment and technological advances in the field of cancer biology, in this international fight against cancer," Li said.

For instance, precision medicine is highly effective and can improve survival and outcomes beyond traditional chemotherapies, but the research needs a lot of testing and investment.

"China provides that scale," Li said. A clinical trial traditionally takes 10 to 15 years on average to get approval, and most drug development would fail that process. But when collaborating with China, that process can be "incredibly" accelerated, he said, using the example of a drug developed by AstraZeneca.

The drug is targeting the epidermal growth factor receptor mutation that causes about 15 to 20 percent of lung cancers, and this mutation is more common among Asians, especially Asian women who never smoke.

By collaborating with China, the pharmaceutical company set a world record in cancer drug development, Li said.

Important role

Alex Ng, vice-president of Tencent Healthcare, said technology plays an important role in drug development and clinical trials, and the company's experience in tackling local problems in China can have a global impact.

As a tech company, Tencent has also been investing in healthcare to explore the application of AI technology in healthcare and frontier scientific discovery, Ng said.

"To understand the underlying cause of diseases and identify mutations, you need a lot of genomic sequencing analytics. Our lab is moving into single-cell sequencing," said Ng, adding that the database being generated is enormous and they are working on how to develop AI algorithms to better harness the data.

One example of AI helping to solve healthcare issues is addressing the supply and demand mismatch because China has one of the largest populations of cancer patients, but there are not enough capable oncologists to serve them.

Li agreed that technology and collaboration are the answer to the challenges of fighting cancer globally.

There are no IP concerns because the data is all presented publicly, so it is an open collaboration, said Li, calling for the US to collaborate with China. "This is a fight that really unites and brings the world together, and we're hoping to achieve some policy innovations in this," he said.