When bone marrow transplant failed Yong Lu in 2004, he knew Gleevec was probably his last salvation. However, having to pay around 23,500 RMB (estimated $3400) a month for this Swiss made medication to treat his Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML), Lu knew his savior would also be his killer.

Running a small textile business in Wuxi, a southern city in Jiangsu province of China, Lu chanced upon a report about Veenat, a drug which the Korean Leukemia Association asserted to mirror Gleevec but coming at one-tenth of its price. Lu spent 3000 RMB (estimated $430) for his new discovery from an Indian supplier and his condition was stabilized within a month.

Seizing the opportunity, Lu started smuggling Veenat and selling it to his fellow countrymen who also could not afford to pay a high price for patent medication. Lu’s story was made into a movie. “Dying to Survive” made its debut this summer and hit 1.3 billion RMB (estimated $163 million) box office within three days. Critics called it the Chinese Dallas Buyers Club, as it highlighted the country’s pressing need for affordable cancer medication.

According to China’s National Pharmaceutical Industry Information Center, her generic drug market is about 916.7 billion RMB (estimated $132 billion) in 2016 and approximately 99% of the near 5000 pharmaceutical companies are manufacturing generic drugs. Unfortunately, China does not have the appropriate know-how to reproduce patent drugs and consumers’ confidence towards home-made medications tend to be low.

China prides herself to be “Factory Asia”, making fine replica of exclusive items and “made in China” label can be read almost anywhere in the World, yet medicine is missing from the big picture. The general office of state council had already requested for an urgent change this April.

Accelerating the pharmaceutical sector

As early as 2014, a group of Chinese MIT graduates had set their eyes on accelerating the pharmaceutical sector with new technology. The vanguards set up XtalPi and Intelligent Digital Drug Discovery and Development (ID4) platform, which combines AI, cloud computing algorithms, and quantum physics in the development of new drugs.

XtalPi had garnered $15 million from Google, Tencent and Sequoia at the beginning of 2018 to expand on its computational models which assist in speedy drug development. In May, XtalPi also announced its collaborations with Pfizer and IBM Watson, to develop new drugs from existing formulas and uncover new treatment combinations via precision medicine.

Furthermore, LinkDoc, another up and coming AI company, is aiming to build the largest cancer data platform in China. They have mapped part of the data with the locations where cancer patients seek medical help, highlighting the discrepancy in resources allocations. After securing one billion RMB (estimated $144 million) of financing this July, LinkDoc will be working with hospitals and other Chinese pharmaceutical tycoons to ensure cost of clinical trials is lowered by at least 30%.

Transformation from patent to generic and beyond

Regardless of patent or generic drugs, China is desperate for a transform. She is now investing on US based startups, hoping to import their products and expertise. Nevertheless, time and again, corporate scandals, drug reliability, and Chinese’s preference to go after big brands and names for their purchase, are still posing immense challenges.

Coupled with the fact that it will be at least a good handful of years before a new drug gets approved and launched and thus far, no AI has successfully developed any drug, China’s pharmaceutical industry is not walking on an entirely paved path, but it’s exactly the huge hurdle and demand which attracts foreign investors.

As Will Polkinghorn, the founder of Driver, a company building a treatment access platform for cancer patients, told Forbes, “for us, China is just an ideal opportunity given the fact they have got this enormous problem,” and he is referring to the thousands of cancer patients like Lu, who are dying to find ways to survive.

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Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.