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China's Proteomics Boom Continues, Though Not Immune from Global Life Sciences Slowdown

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Proteomics research continues to be a booming business in China, with the market over the last few years having grown at around 30 percent to 35 percent annually, according to estimates from biotech consulting firm JZMed.

This comes as little surprise, particularly given the role China has played in recent years in driving sales growth for the world's life sciences firms, including major mass spectrometry vendors.

Indeed, during his company's fourth-quarter earnings call in January, Thermo Fisher Scientific CEO Marc Casper announced that China had become the firm's second largest geography, with more than $700 million in sales in 2012.

Other vendors have similarly noted the country's strength, with, for instance, Waters recently reporting double digit growth rates there in Q4 despite posting essentially flat revenues for the quarter overall.

And the country looks poised to continue such growth in the future, said Jim Zhang, a principal at JZMed, which focuses on the Chinese life sciences market.

The country's proteomics business "is driven by pharma, drug development, and diagnostics product development," he told ProteoMonitor. "Given that the Chinese pharmaceutical market is still growing strongly, you can expect strong growth [in proteomics] over the next few years."

Although China has served as a growth engine for proteomics tools and services vendors worldwide, the country isn't immune to sluggish global demand. For instance, Shenzhen, China-based research institute BGI, which is known primarily for its genomics work, also has significant proteomics offerings. However, this business has suffered over the last few years from cuts in global life sciences spending, said Liang Lin, deputy head of proteomics at BGI-Shenzhen.

"In the last two years, the proteomics business at BGI increased at 10 percent per year, but it has not reached our goal," Lin told ProteoMonitor. "One major reason is the economic situation worldwide, especially in Europe. Many research institutes and pharmaceutical companies have cut their budgets seriously."

In 2010, BGI's proteomics business did roughly ¥40 million ($6.2 million), which would put the company's 2012 proteomics revenues in the ¥50 million range. The bulk of these revenues stems from selling technical services to researchers and pharmaceutical firms. BGI has "set up a number of collaborations with pharmas," Lin said. He declined, however, to name any specific companies.

In a 2011 interview, Siqi Liu, associate director and head of BGI's proteomics division told ProteoMonitor that the institute was looking to add as many as 50 new mass spectrometers over the next several years (PM 7/17/2011). Lin said BGI has purchased five new instruments over the last year, including a Thermo Fisher Scientific Q Exactive, an AB Sciex TripleTOF 5600+, and several triple quadrupole machines.

"Over the last three years, mass spectrometry has developed very quickly, and we are keeping close collaborative relationships with mass spectrometry companies such as Thermo Fisher, AB Sciex, Waters, and Bruker," he said.

In addition to demand from pharma and biotech, government funding has been one of the most significant growth drivers for proteomics in China, Lin said, though he noted that this "is not a main financial source for [proteomics at] BGI."

"Proteomics research is a hot frontier for life sciences in China," he said. "The government has set up a huge fund to support it over a long period, and many top scientists are participating in it."

Lin estimated that the government currently spends around ¥300 million per year on proteomics research, with the bulk of the research focusing on "fundamental research of the human proteome in multiple organs and cells and disease-related proteomics."

Indeed, despite the importance of outside pharma and biotech money to China's proteomics market, government funding remains the most significant driver of growth in the proteomics market in terms of money from inside the country, according to Fuchu He, president of the Beijing Proteome Research Center.

"In North America and Europe there is very strong support from commercial institutions, but in China that is not the case," he told ProteoMonitor. "The main support is still from the government, not from companies."

China is active in a variety of large-scale proteomics research projects, including the Human Proteome Organization's Chromosome-Centric Human Proteome Project, under which the country's researchers are investigating proteins coded by chromosomes 1, 8, and 20.

BGI's Liu is leading the chromosome 20 effort, while Fudan University researcher Pengyuan Yang is leading the chromosome 8 work and He is leading the chromosome 1 project.

He also heads up the Chinese Human Proteome Project, an initiative the country announced in 2010 to characterize the proteome of every organ in the human body. As part of this initiative, the Chinese government is building a new proteomics national laboratory, the Pilot Hub of ENcyclopedical proteomIX, or PHOENIX, center.

Construction of the center started last year, He said, noting that it was scheduled to open in 2015. The effort is being financed by roughly ¥1 billion in funding from both the Chinese central government and the Beijing local government, he said, adding that more funds were to come from Peking University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

When fully operational, the center will employ more than 300 researchers and contain more than 30 high-end mass spectrometers, He said. The center is currently involved in discussions with several mass spec vendors about providing instruments, he said.

In addition to mass specs for conventional bottom-up proteomics, He said that the PHOENIX center is also putting together resources for protein imaging and multi-omics research, as well as a bioinformatics infrastructure that will serve as the primary repository for data collected under the Chinese HPP and HUPO's Human Liver Proteome Project, which he is also leading.

He said the researchers had completed around one-third of the Chinese HPP, prioritizing organs — including the liver, lung, kidney, and brain — that correspond to the major diseases in the country's population. The initial phase of the project is focused primarily on characterizing these organ proteomes, but in the second stage of the work the researchers will pursue potential prognostic and diagnostic markers as well as therapeutic targets, he said.

Diagnostics are a significant growth area for Chinese proteomics research, He said, with "more and more hospitals" working toward implementing mass spec-based protein tests in house.

This trend is particularly evident in university-affiliated hospitals, he noted, citing in particular Fudan University as an institution with "very strong interest in the utilization of mass spec for clinical investigation, especially for diagnostics and prognostics."

He predicted a continued shift toward such clinical applications, saying he believed that going forward the proteomic diagnostics market "would [grow] much faster" than basic proteomics research.

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