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Doing ‘Good’ Science by Decoding Genes

by Neelima Mahajan

January 21, 2014

Yanmei Zhu, Associate Director for the Strategic Planning Committee, BGI-Shenzhen
Yanmei Zhu, Associate Director for the Strategic Planning Committee, BGI-Shenzhen

BGI-Shenzhen, the world’s largest gene sequencing entity, is placing China on the global genetics map. Yanmei Zhu, Associate Director for the Strategic Planning Committee, explains BGI’s philosophy and approach.

Ten years back it would have been hard to imagine that a Chinese entity could do cutting-edge work in genetics. Today BGI-Shenzhen has changed that perception. A fairly young institute, BGI has already established itself as one of the best in the world. It has participated in prestigious research projects such as the International Human Genome Project. It has become the world’s largest gene sequencer and has been doing cutting edge research in many areas—be it in healthcare, agriculture or just basic research on plant and animal genomes. BGI has done this despite the fact that China doesn’t have an enabling environment for genetic research. Over the years, BGI has developed a unique low-cost and high-throughput platform. It makes money off some activities such as genetic sequencing which, along with occasional grants, helps fund research.

In this interview Yanmei Zhu, Associate Director for the Strategic Planning Committee, explains BGI’s philosophy, approach, its relationship with Big Pharma, and more (to read about how BGI became a global genetics research powerhouse click here):

Q. Globally there are very few institutions doing cutting edge work in genetics research: the Broad Institute in the US is one, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the UK is another, and then there is BGI. What are the key differences between BGI, Sanger and Broad?

A. BGI is very unique, partly because in the UK and America, their industry is good and prepared. It seems that they are ready to do this as long as the technology and science can apply. But in China, the pharmaceutical and medicine industry, hospitals and doctors are very far behind. That’s a big gap. So BGI has the opportunity to bridge that (gap).

Q. What are the different challenges in genetic research in China?

A. It’s both opportunities and challenges. BGI has to push the government to change the policy. We have to build our own gene bank, for example. Without BGI, we will have no bio-bank at the national level. To do science that’s the basic resource.

Q. How do you pick projects? What is the goal you have in mind?

A. A lot of people refuse to sequence the whole genome because they think 98% of DNA matter is junk, only 1-2% is useful. They call it the functional DNA. But BGI thinks that all things that exist are useful. That’s our philosophy. At the beginning, BGI thinks all the genes are useful, both human and the non-human genes. And a lot of animals’ DNA is much complex, and much bigger than humans’, like mice and rice. For humans the (genetic data) is about 2 gigabytes, but for mice and rice, it’s much bigger. That’s one point. The other one is that BGI established a platform both for human healthcare and agriculture because we think that the future of breeding should use computing. We call it computing breeding. It’s a very big area for China, because we need to enhance our food security, and also the economy. A lot of medicines come from plants so we need to know the information before we can invent a new medicine for human healthcare.

Q. One of BGI’s founders says that your goal is to do ‘good science’. But this is an institute which is not funded by the government or any other entity. You have to make money, but you also want to do good science. How do you balance the two goals?

A. Yes, from ‘good science’ to ‘good business’… BGI has not been a profit-driven organization from the beginning. It’s not like a normal company which runs just for profit. We think for the bio-economy we have to be backed by basic research. And why we do good science? In 1971, then US president Richard Nixon declared a war on cancer (Editor’s note: Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act in 1971 which is widely known as the beginning of the ‘war on cancer’). That’s the reason BGI participated in the International Human Genome Project: if people don’t know the DNA well enough, they will never know where cancers come from. That’s why we need to be backed by basic research. We call it ‘good science’ because a lot of people do science, like pharmaceuticals, but they do science, for profit. BGI’s dream is to make things better for the whole world: through health, good food, and a good environment. That’s why in the last 10-plus years, we refused to take venture capital.

Q. But how do you make money?

A. At the beginning, we only had research, so we applied for government funding. That was a very tough time. Because BGI is a private entity, it’s very difficult to get money from the government. After that, we collaborated with universities and public research centers. (That way) we can apply for funding together. The second way to make money is to provide technology services, like sequencing, analysis and data.

Q. Which divisions of BGI make money and which ones don’t?

A. Research, the bio bank and college are non-profit. But the technology service and medical service actually need profit otherwise they will die. But it’s not purely profit-driven. For example, we are planning to initiate a project for HPV (human papillomavirus) in China. We want to provide free sequencing and analysis. That’s free because it is BGI’s dream to control several kinds of disease.

Q. How do you lower the cost of disease detection?

A. For HPV, it’s only technological costs. We developed a tool, so women can take a sample at home. We can collect it very easily and test very cheaply. The cost is less than RMB 100. Earlier, it was over RMB 300.

Besides, we have a big-scale platform. If you do one (test), the cost will be very high, But if you do 10 million, it (comes down).

Q. There are fears about BGI’s sudden rise. An article called BGI a ‘bio-Google’, a storehouse of the world’s biological information. What are some of the concerns that you encountered and how do you defend yourself? People are afraid, maybe not of BGI, but of China having all this genetic information and the ability to use it. How do you react to such concerns? 

A. BGI dreams to change the world. Google makes information very cheap, and everyone can access it. BGI wants to make bio-information very cheap so that everybody can know their genes, and everybody can control their own health—not (something that is done by) the hospital or doctor. One of our informal slogans is, “We (should) know our own gene, our health (should be) in our own hands”. At the beginning, BGI was (viewed as) a troublemaker. It made a lot of scientists and governments (in China) very angry. That’s why we escaped from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). Now, BGI wants to be a game changer, or maybe (even) a rule builder.

Q. Will you be getting into personal genomics?

A. That’s another business model. Everybody needs their own “gene book”. Just like a product introduction. With the advancement of science and technology, we will know more and more. Now BGI knows about 400 kinds of single-gene diseases. In the world, there are about 7,000-8,000 single-gene diseases, a lot of multi-gene diseases, cancer, and also problems from the environment. So it’s going from simple to complex. BGI wants to do it step by step. I think in one year we can have a very simple model (in personal genomics).

Q. There are a lot of concerns, especially in the West, around cloning or genetically modified food or even your project to decode the genetics of intelligence. People don’t want man to play God. What is your philosophy on that?

A. BGI doesn’t want to create a new kind of animal or plant but follow the natural evolution. Sometimes we need a new way to save things from becoming extinct. Take Norway’s gene bank where they just keep different types of seed to save them for the future (Editor’s note: She is referring to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway which aims to preserve the genetic diversity of food crops). There is a similar philosophy at BGI. We don’t want to design babies. We don’t want to create a new animal. We just want to improve the life of farmers, and enable them to make money from the land.

Q. How has the Complete Genomics acquisition helped you? Complete Genomics wasn’t a profit-making entity.

A. The Chinese industry is very weak in making high-level sequencers, which is a bottleneck for BGI and others. So, in future, there will be very heated competition with Illumina and the others. It’s like a tool or a weapon: if you don’t have your own weapon, how can you fight? How can you compete? Complete Genomics has their own sequencers, they build their own sequencers.

Q. There were a lot of concerns about you buying Complete Genomics, including allegations by Illumina’s CEO Jay Flatley that this is like selling the ‘formula for Coke’ to a Chinese company.

A. But I think it’s good for the ecosystem. If Illumina has monopoly over sequencers, it will be very bad for the advancement of science and technology. But I think BGI and Illumina are still collaborators. The ecosystem is still emerging. It’s just a beginning. So the relationship between us is not only competitive, but also collaborative in a lot of areas.

Q. On the one hand, BGI says it is into ‘good science’ and making money is not a goal. On the other hand, you also have relationships with pharmaceutical companies for whom profits come first. What is that about?

A. To do research. We have a very close relationships with 19 of the top 20 pharmaceutical multinational companies for genetic medicine. After the International Human Genome Project, the pharmaceutical industry found that more and more types of medicine have relationships with genes. It’s a new area in medicine. Also pharmaceutical companies are now facing the patent cliff: in the next few years, the patents will expire. Patents will expire on a lot of very profitable medicines. It’s difficult for the pharmaceutical companies to find new, profitable medicine. That’s why they need the genomics platform.

(The work we do with pharmaceutical companies) is only for research at this time. For example, if we know more about DNA, a lot of cancers can be (averted) even before they hit someone.

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