Academia Sinica's Y.T. Chen
Taiwan's Golden Decade of Biotech
Paladin of biomedical research Y.T. Chen talks of Taiwan’s scientific diaspora, and his strategy for turning biotech into the next economic boom.
Taiwan's Golden Decade of BiotechBy Sheree Chuang, Hsiao-Wen Wang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 365 )
At a time when Taiwan's biological technology industry faces an uncertain future and many are hesitant to move forward, one man has raised high the lantern of hope.
Y.T. Chen, director of Academia Sinica's Institute of Biomedical Sciences, gave up his high-level, high-paying position as chief of medical genetics in the Department of Pediatrics at Duke University in the United States in order to return to Taiwan five years ago. Repeated visits by former Academia Sinica president Lee Yuan-tseh had convinced Chen to take the helm of their genomic research program and transform the Institute of Biomedical Sciences into the engine driving Taiwan's biotech industry.
In his tiny director's office at the Institute of Biomedical Sciences, Chen, cutting a lean figure and wearing thick glasses, spends his days and nights reading research reports.
Chen's greatest concern is that Taiwan's biotech industry has the chance to experience a Golden Age, which he expects to last no more than a decade, and if Taiwan misses this opportunity, it may find no other driving force for its next wave of economic growth.
Lee Yuan-tseh once praised Chen as the first person to bring biotech business opportunities to Taiwan.
This praise came because of Chen's own story – one of the first rays of light for Taiwan's biotech industry.
During his time at Duke University, Chen, a National Taiwan University graduate with a doctorate degree in human genetics from Columbia University, saw patients in the daytime and pursued his research at night. With financial backing from China Synthetic Rubber Corp., he persevered for fifteen years before finally developing a medicine to treat Pompe disease. That same year his treatment earned the approval of the United States Food and Drug Administration, and the major United States pharmaceutical company Genzyme purchased its patent.
Taiwan Cement Corp. president Leslie Koo, for his part, became the first businessperson to taste the sweet fruit that is biotechnology. Thirteen years ago, Koo, through Synpac, the United States subsidiary of China Synthetic Rubber, began providing annual financial support to Chen's Duke University. Ten years ago, he signed a contract for the patent rights.
Then, in the fall of 2006, Koo's long-term investment paid off in a big way. China Synthetic Rubber Corp. and Genzyme reached an agreement on a payment method for the patent rights. According to initial estimates, the Taiwanese company stands to receive royalties of NT$2.1 billion annually.
This success story went to prove that in addition to its powerful electronics and information technology industries, Taiwan possessed the strength to reap big profits from biotech intellectual property.
Originally, no drug existed for the treatment of Pompe disease. An infant diagnosed with this hereditary illness would suffer from muscle weakness over its entire body and be forced to rely on a respirator to stay alive. Most babies with Pompe would usually not live past their first birthdays. But now, Myozyme, the drug developed by Chen, is on the market in over thirty countries and has saved the lives of thousands of children suffering from Pompe.
Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal reporter Geeta Anand has turned the story of the parents of Pompe patients and Y.T. Chen into a book called The Cure. A movie deal is also in the works.
Following are excerpts from an interview Mr. Chen gave to CommonWealth magazine:
Q: Many people think Taiwan's biotech industry is a bubble. How do you see it? And why?
A: I don't think it's a bubble. It's that our laws need improvement. It can't be that every time you want to conduct a clinical experiment the government doesn't dare grant approval and frequently asks whether you have already received permission in the United States.
We're relatively conservative. Officials are afraid that, if by any chance there is a problem, they will be attacked. Other countries haven't granted approval – why do we want to make guinea pigs of our people here in Taiwan? If it is always going to be this kind of thinking, then why do I want to do my work in Taiwan? I could just do it all in the United States and it would be fine. It's on this point that the government needs to change. What's more, I know the government does possess the determination to change.
It's not the problem of the hospitals. It's that government officials don't dare take on this responsibility. If we don't bear this risk, Taiwan will never have a biotech industry.
Q: Otherwise our hospitals here in Taiwan would only be helping international pharmaceutical companies conduct clinical experiments?
A: Right, we would just be helping others do it. If we want to foster Taiwan's biomedical industry, we must develop medicines and diagnostic reagents in Taiwan and we must first put them on the market in Taiwan before marketing them to other countries. This is because massive financial resources are required if you want to go into another country. You say our biological technology sector is a bubble. This is because Taiwan's biotech companies are all very small and the government doesn't grant them approval. For example, one Taiwanese biotech company wanted to apply for approval for a diagnostic reagent, but five years after it had applied, the government still wouldn't give its approval.
Obstacles to Biotech: Laws and Funding
Q: The laws are a problem. What other obstacles are there?
A: Another one is funding. A number of pharmacological and toxicity experiments are required prior to making a drug. If Taiwan doesn't perform these experiments, it can contract the work out. That is a problem of money. Overseas, many toxicity experiments and pharmacological experiments are conducted.
Q: How much money do you need to spend for this part?
A: A single project requires an outlay of NT$600 to 700 million. That's US$20 million. If there were a biological technology fund, the government could select ten projects and subsidize them to the maximum extent. Then it could take these companies to phase 1 of drug testing. If it's a diagnostic reagent, you'd spend less money. It's approximately one-third of the cost.
Q: It's like the reason Taiwan's integrated circuit industry could develop in the past – because the Industrial Technology Research Institute was driving things. If Taiwan now wants to develop its biotechnology industry, who do you think should get things started?
A: Right now, the Academia Sinica is willing to take the lead. It's not just the Institute of Biomedical Sciences. The new president of Academia Sinica, Wong Chi-huey, has a background in biotech. He's currently participating in many projects that are working on ways of helping Taiwan's good biotech companies. Actually, the more than 200 Taiwanese companies in the field are all struggling and all need help.
Taiwan's Biotech Talent Diaspora
Q: You mentioned that Taiwan still has a major opportunity when it comes to developing biotechnology. Why is that?
A: There is actually a great deal of Taiwanese biotechnology talent abroad. Right now, a lot of people over forty and approaching fifty are at the few largest biotech companies and have risen to very high positions. For instance, at Amgen, the biggest biotech company in the United States, the person in charge of research is Taiwanese. Many of the people in charge at generic drug companies are Taiwanese. Also, Taiwanese are the bosses at a few of the laboratories doing toxicity experiments.
Q: You once said that the government hasn't invested enough?
A: It's still not enough. The only one that has invested is the Development Fund. The Development Fund has invested for the most part in the electronics industry, and what it has invested in the biological technology industry is quite small.
Q: If the money is not invested, in ten years what will this talent pool be doing?
A: These people might already be too old. After sixty-five there is a limit to a person's energy.
Q: So, there remains an opportunity of no more than a decade if Taiwan's biotechnology industry wants to develop?
A: Just about. There remains an opportunity of no more than a decade.
Q: Besides money, what else do you think Taiwan can provide?
A: Some basic infrastructure could be put up. For instance, if there is no capacity for the toxicity aspect, then it should be set up. Some patents, for example. For good inventions, intellectual property rights should be protected. We absolutely must find the best team of lawyers so we will be able to protect these good discoveries. This is extremely important.
Q: How much money is needed to do these things?
A: [Academia Sinica] research fellow Lan-Bo Chen had originally hoped to establish a megafund, a major fund with US$1 billion. But, now, after two or three years of hard work, we have only NT$2 billion. That's only US$60 million, not even one-twentieth the original goal.
Taiwan's Source of Hope
Q: Just what is the allure of this industry? What is the reason Taiwan can succeed?
A: I think there is still a great deal of hope. First, our human resources are very good. With the exception of Japan, our talent is still the best in Asia, better than China, Singapore or Malaysia. Our people are the most qualified. Our strong point is creating intellectual property. This is our forte. How to turn this intellectual property into products – this is where we need to apply our efforts.
Nonetheless, the most important thing is up front. Singapore has no basic infrastructure. It can only invite international enterprises to come and set up downstream manufacturing. China is the same. It establishes manufacturing plants, but only does contract manufacturing. That's not what we want. We have no niche in this area either.
Q: How do you go about persuading the business community to invest?
A: If the government steps up to take the lead, if the Development Fund puts up forty percent as originally planned, then the private sector will enter.
Q: If Taiwan is absent as regards the development of biological technology within the next ten years, what will be Taiwan's next wave of economic development?
A: If we are absent, then Taiwan will not have a biotechnology industry. Right now we have IC and IT industries, but the competitiveness of those will weaken gradually.
South Korea, Singapore Actively Promoting Biotech
Q: At the moment, which countries are particularly aggressive in promoting their biotechnology sectors?
A: South Korea and Singapore are being extremely aggressive. South Korea has a US$2 billion fund, all of which is provided by the government. In Taiwan we have just NT$2 billion, but a single Rebar scandal can see the embezzlement of NT$50 billion. That's US$1.5 billion.
The Singapore government has provided major incentives to get people to set up factories there, and do R&D as well. Novartis has a tropical diseases research center in Singapore.
South Korea doesn't do it by encouraging others to come. It puts down its own money and does it itself. South Korea's major enterprises are all involved. Their approach is for big corporations to start biotech companies, and then, since the government needs experiments performed, it contracts the work out to these companies when it needs to. So, it's the business conglomerates that set up biotech companies, then the government provides support to sustain their operations.
Q: You've spoken of how you toiled for fifteen years researching the drug for Pompe disease. China Synthetic Rubber Corp. also invested. How much money did it invest?
A: Actually, it was due completely to personal considerations that I decided to pursue that project, because I was taking care of those patients. Starting from the time I returned to Duke University to start my teaching career in 1983, I have always been treating rare diseases. Pompe is one of the most serious of the rare diseases. The infants commonly die before the age of one. Often, a doctor can only say to the fathers and mothers of the patients, the good news is that at last we have a diagnosis, but the bad news is your child only has a few months to live. I think, as a doctor, that's not good enough.
This is a rarely seen disease. In the beginning, there weren't many pharmaceutical companies interested. We searched for a good method completely from the standpoint of a doctor and scientist.
Before I started, I knew that Pompe victims were deficient in a certain enzyme. Twenty or thirty years ago, there were people that said, since the patients lack this enzyme, give them the enzyme. Yet they never succeeded. In fact, the reason they didn't succeed is that, however they tried, they couldn't inject it into the cell. Consequently, it merely circulated in the blood. Since this disease is a muscular disease, the enzyme you inject must enter the cells of the muscles. We could succeed because we knew how to make it enter into the muscle cells. This is our critical technology.
Taiwan Needs More Research
Q: Do you think that doctors in Taiwan are like you in this sense and can set their minds on conducting R&D for a new medicine?
A: I think that, in the environment that exists in Taiwan, it's not easy to get a doctor to throw himself into something like that. That's because doctors in Taiwan have a better income than they would if they did research. Perhaps the difference is double. Well, if you were a doctor, and you only did research and didn't see patients, the salary gap would be quite large. In the United States, if you do research and see fewer patients, your income will be a little lower, but there won't be a major difference.
Q: Which diseases do you think need to be researched in the future?
A: I think that genetic research should be taken advantage of in order to improve the research of all diseases. For instance, cancer research. Cancer is a disease of genetic mutations. It comes from a combination of genetics and environment and diet. All diseases are related to genes. For example, mental diseases and the like. There is too much that needs to be researched.
(Compiled by Hsiao-Wen Wang)
Translated from the Chinese by Stan Blewett