Meanwhile, In China

You'll find an interesting interview over at h+ magazine with one of the researchers who has been performing first generation stem cell therapies for the past eight years in China. It provides some good insights into the comparative economics of the present situation: on the one hand, regions like the US that are research powerhouses but so heavily regulated that significant progress cannot be made on applications of that research; on the other hand regions like China where research is less well established but applications and development are more advanced.

It's a strange world we have come to inhabit, at least for those of us old enough to think it remarkable that China is in any aspect a bastion of freedom in comparison to the US - insofar as medical development and clinical application is concerned, in any case.

From the article:

From 2000 to 2001, China’s stem cell research was still poorly funded. James Thomson published his breakthrough work creating embryonic stem cell lines from human blastocysts in Science Magazine in 1998, which kicked off a race for funding in the West. After seeing the first successful Chinese case treated with stem cells at Zhengzhou University Hospital in 2001, I decided to get involved with the research. I was interested in taking laboratory bench work to the hospital bedside. I think that cell-based therapy has a lot of potential because most of the biological activities in our bodies occur at the cellular level. In 2004, after three years of clinical studies observing more than 100 cases, I decided to build a company to supply and work on safe adult stem cells.


As of February 2009, Beike has treated over 5,087 patients with cord blood stem cell injections for diseases like ataxia, autism, ALS, brain trauma, cerebral infarction, cerebral hemorrhage, cerebral palsy, diabetics, Guillain-Barre, encephalatropy, and spinal cord injury - many of these are considered incurable diseases.


We're a China-based stem cell company. Our major challenge is the U.S. FDA standard. For the time being, the U.S. and Europe hold the majority shares of the market because the cost for treatments is still too high for developing countries. We want to build our clinics and labs there.


The research environment in China is still behind. The communication between scholars is still very limited. However, we no longer have difficulty getting material support from overseas. Last year, we hosted China’s first ever symposium on advanced iPS (induced pluripotent stem cell) research as well as the first annual China Stem Cell Technological Forum. We hope to bring the Chinese closer to the international community.


After all these years of observation and practice, I consider adult stem cell-based therapy to be safe. I believe it will become one of the major players in medical industry because it overcomes the single molecule limitation (manipulating single molecules at the molecular level).


Beike did not go through the traditional path of a typical biotech company because it would have been too costly for us.

The work that has been taking place in China is closer to the way that things should get done if you'd like to see faster progress. Medicine is no different from any other field, in that the greatest benefit arises where people are free to work hard to bring new products to the marketplace, other people are free to compete for the customers with better offerings, and the customers themselves make informed choices as to where to spend their money. Anything that interferes with the simplicity of supply, demand, competition, and the care over money that comes from spending from your own purse will inevitably act as a spanner thrown into the wheel of progress.

I find it striking that after the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, virtually no effort was made to privatize health services. To be sure, there are now private health services in these countries, but the official systems of socialized medicine still exist. This fact is a testament to the reigning orthodoxy. The world seems to understand that it is a mistake to nationalize agriculture and factory production. No one advocates a Department of Software Development, even if there are far more interventions in this sector than there should be. And yet health care, all over the world, is assumed to be a normal function of government.

I take exception to your closing points. The ability to obtain healthcare should be a fundamental human right. Someone should not suffer or die of a treatable disease merely because her employer was too cheap to get her good health insurance, or because she were unfortunate enough to lose her job and then get sick. The reason that most countries in the world view provision/funding of healthcare as the domain of the government is because they agree that healthcare is a basic human right. Of course, if you can think of a better way than the government to provide universal health coverage, be my guest.

Definitely, advocate for a system where government regulation of medications and medical devices is less stringent. There are good points in favor of that. But you need to draw the line at advocating healthcare provision as a pure market commodity.

Posted by: Eric Morgen at May 4th, 2009 8:34 PM

See positive and negative rights; provision of a free lunch is a positive right, which means that someone has to be forced to provide it. Even from a ethics-neutral utilitarian perspective the institution of positive rights is a disaster, given what it does to the rate of progress and the prospects of an individual generating wealth.

You may be right in saying that the long-standing rhetoric of health as a human right is why healthcare is so aggressively subsumed by governments.

Posted by: Reason at May 4th, 2009 9:47 PM

Interestingly we have a hybrid health model in Australia. We have a universal health care system called medicare funded through a income tax surcharge. We also have a private health insurance system. Overall its a good system. Citizens have access to health care irrespective of employment, we have affordable drugs through the pharmaceutical benefits scheme (much cheaper than in the US). And by the way the system has bi-partisan support! I find it shocking that a developed country like the US has such an expensive an inequitable health care system.

Posted by: Chris Collingwood at May 16th, 2009 9:53 PM

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