The United States has fallen woefully behind China when it comes to genomic research, according to National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, M.D.

“While we, the United States, led the Human Genome Project and from that derived great benefit—the return on that investment was 178 to 1 in terms of economic growth—and yet if you ask me now where is the largest investment in genomics in the world, it is not in the United States. It is in, Shenzhen, China,” said Collins during a Sept. 10 roundtable discussion on 21st century cures hosted by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“They read our playbook and they saw what an opportunity was there. They took advantage of that,” he lamented. “Meanwhile, we, over the 11 years since the genome project was completed in 2003, have seen a steady decrease in our ability to support research with now about a 23 percent cut in our purchasing power for biomedical research since 2003.”

As a result, Collins said that the U.S. has lost its leadership in this area “that was clearly ours” at that point in time. “Don’t get me wrong, I celebrate what other countries are doing to contribute to biomedical research. But, why would we, the United States with all the talent, creativity and vision here, decide to exit the stage just when it was getting interesting?” he said.

The purpose of the roundtable, which included Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, M.D., was to discuss opportunities to accelerate the discovery, development, and delivery of new cures and treatments.

Genome sequencing technology is critical to understanding the underlying molecular pathways for diseases. For instance, when it comes to cancer, the processing of information on patient tumors and the prediction of the best drugs for specific patients allow oncologists to deliver personalized care more quickly and effectively. “We clearly have a critical role to play here,” said Collins.  

Medical treatments based on an individual’s genetic make-up is the future of medicine, according to government and industry panelists who participated in the roundtable discussion. Biomarkers were referenced by participants with respect to personalized medicine and their potential for linking genetic traits with promising therapies.

“This is something that is going to be the future. Personalized and precision medicine and how we do it is really our moment in time,” said Dan Theodorescu, M.D., director of the University of Colorado Comprehensive Cancer Center. “The United States, thanks to Dr. Collins’ initiative and vision, has built an incredible genomic engine and infrastructure that has resulted in a lot of technology to really push forward molecular biotechnology and medicine. It would be a shame now to not capitalize on that and maintain our national and international leadership in this area.”

In related news, NIH late last month released a final genomic data sharing policy that promotes sharing of large-scale human and non-human genomic data generated from NIH-funded research. The analysis of the billions of data points required to sequence or decode human DNA and other genomic data is a very time-consuming process. The goal of the NIH policy is to promote data sharing as a way to “speed the translation of data into knowledge, products and procedures that improve health while protecting the privacy of research participants.”

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