SynbiCITE Fact-Finding Mission to China

  • Posted on 25 July, 2016
Prof. Richard Kitney, Co-Director SynbiCITE, and Prof. Paul Freemont, Co-Director SynbiCITE

From June the 13th to the 18th SynbiCITE took part in a fact-finding mission to China in relation to synthetic biology. This was a joint initiative between SynBioBeta and SynbiCITE, but also included representatives of other organisations, such as the UK Synthetic Biology Leadership Council. The trip focused on three cities, Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Each visit centred on a workshop at a particular university or research centre or nearby companies. The first of the centre visits was to Tsinghau University in Beijing, arguably the MIT of China.

On the morning of the 14th we visited Beigene Inc. Beigene describes itself as a biopharmaceutical company “dedicated to becoming a leader in the discovery and development of innovative, molecularly targeted and immuno-oncology drugs for the treatment of cancer”. This was followed by a visit to the National Institute of Biological Sciences (NIBS), where we met Dr Son Huang. NIBS is one of the premier life science research institutes in China. Founded in 2005, it has quickly established an international reputation through an envious publication record. Interestingly, NIBS is directed by a US national academy member; Dr Xiaodong Wang, and the institute very much feels like a US research institute, both in its ‘state-of-the-art’ infrastructure and its research atmosphere. The company and the institute visits were informative because, in addition to the technical aspects of the work ongoing, the approach was interesting. Typically, Chinese scientists and engineers move to the West (often the United States) to work in Biotech. Beigene exhibited the reverse. In many cases strategic developments for the company involved senior academics from the west (again, typically, the United States) who work in Beigene for periods of each year. The morning visits were followed by a SynBioBeta Activate event involving presentations and panel discussions.

The visits in the Beijing area were typical, in many ways, of the rest of trip. We discovered that intellectual property is now important in China, but only Chinese patents are taken seriously. Hence, western companies that trade in China should seek Chinese patent protection. The second thing that we discovered was that if intellectual property is developed and exploited in China it is very difficult to transfer money out of the country.

On Tuesday evening we made the journey from Beijing to Shanghai. This was undertaken on a high-speed train, which was truly amazing. The distance from Beijing to Shanghai is around 850 miles and the journey was completed in around 5½hrs (with a number of stops), with the train typically cruising at 200 mph with almost no sensation of speed. A truly impressive journey and clearly indicating the enormous technological advances that are ongoing in China. We were told that several thousand miles of high speed tracks are currently being built with ambitions to link China via high speed train to Malaysia and beyond. In contrast, the UK has around 50 miles of high speed train tracks, although plans are afoot to extend this to a few hundred miles!

Wednesday was mainly taken up with a visit to the Suzhou Industrial Park. This is an area of around 280 km². The industrial park is a joint venture between the Singaporean and Chinese Governments, with a major investment from Singapore. There are numerous companies in the general area of biotechnology situated in the Park. The site has been developed from scratch over the last 10 to 15 years and is built on what was originally marshland.

In a meeting with the Director of the Park we were told that western companies and universities are very welcome - but organisations and people involved in the development of companies and/or research at Suzhou are not able to export revenue or intellectual property outside China. It’s not clear how this relates to the Park being a joint venture with Singapore. Part of the day also included visits to Genewiz, which describes itself as a global genome services provider, and Suzhou Lead Biotechnology, an SME providing biological enzyme engineering technology and its application in medicine and the chemical industry. The scale and ambition of Suzhou was staggering although it was not clear how connected Suzhou was with the local academic research institutions in Shanghai.

Thursday morning comprised a visit to one of the campuses of Jiao Tong University. The morning consisted of a workshop on synthetic biology presented by workers primarily from Jiao Tong University, for example Professor Yan Feng, and members of the visiting party. It included a presentation by Dr Ling Hua, Research Director at Du Pont, who works in the Industrial Biosciences Division of Du Pont in the United States.

The plan for Thursday afternoon was a flight from Shanghai, Hongqiao Airport to Shenzhen. This proved to be by far the most problematic part of the trip. Our flight was due to leave Shanghai at around 1:30pm, but due to bad weather all flights were cancelled. By 3pm it became clear that we might be stuck in Shanghai. Alternative forms of transport were investigated and it was quickly determined that no train seats were available. The alternative was a 15 hour journey in a “luxury bus”. This was arranged and we went by taxi to the Shanghai Central Bus Station, a journey of an hour. The bus was anything but luxury and was quickly rejected. After some discussion, it was agreed that we should try our chances at the much larger international airport at Pudong. But how to get there? It turned out that there is an excellent Uber service in Shanghai. Having arrived at Pudong airport, it quickly became clear that the only real possibility of getting to Shenzhen that night was to fly to Hong Kong and cross the land border into China. We arrived at Hong Kong Airport around midnight and, following two taxi rides and a border crossing, eventually arrived in our rooms at 3am. However, one of us had to stay the night in a small and very local Shanghai hotel near the airport due to only having single entry visa. It is worth noting that if you leave China to go to Hong Kong and then re-enter mainland China you need a multiple entry visa,

Friday morning comprised a visit to the Beijing Genome Institute (the BGI). The BGI is one of the world’s leading genome sequencing centres. The BGI is partly private and partly public, receiving funds from both the Chinese Government and private investors. It is a major supplier of DNA sequencing technology and works with many leading pharmaceutical companies and companies in other areas. The visit was truly inspirational. Amongst other things, because of the range of science ongoing and the numerous Science and Nature papers published on the Institute's work. What was particularly noticeable was the strong collaboration between the United States and China in the context of the BGI, with many scientists from the US working in Shenzhen and regularly commuting from the US.

Finally afternoon comprised the last of the SynBioBeta Activate events. This took place in the Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology. Their boast was that anything electro mechanical could be produced here in Shenzhen and they are now making similar strides in biologically-based technology and synthetic biology. As with the previous Activate events, there were a series of presentations from both local researchers and members of the visiting party – together with panel discussion sessions. The meeting finished with an informal dinner and travel back to Hong Kong ready for the flight back to London.

So what were the key things we learned from the trip?
  • China is extremely interested in synthetic biology and is making a major investment in the area
  • The Chinese are very happy to collaborate on research when they can see an advantage to China.
  • At the moment fundamental research in synthetic biology in the US and UK would seem to be in advance of China – but they are catching up fast and have many original ideas and developments
  • They are now beginning to take intellectual property seriously; however, it was clearly pointed out that in China only Chinese patents are taken seriously.
  • It is possible for Western companies and groups to set up companies in China, for example, in one of the industrial parks - but the activity needs to be in China and with a Chinese partner and it is very difficult, if not impossible, to transfer money out of from such companies