For decades, much of the pipeline of medical innovation has flowed from West to East. Now a string of companies are attempting to upend that trend with new drugs and products tailored to Asian bodies and lifestyles.
Many of the researchers focusing on Asia have a simple starting point: Diseases and their cures can sometimes work differently in different populations, and a one-size-fits-all regimen tailored to the West isn’t sufficient. The approach is cropping up most often in cancer care in Asia, home to tumors that are rare in the West.
The shift is part of a broader trend sweeping through the global health-care industry called precision medicine, which seeks to tailor treatment to a person’s specific genetic makeup and circumstances, including the ones commonly shared among people of the same ethnic group or culture.
The prevalence throughout Asia of stomach-infecting bacteria which can lead to cancer-causing inflammation is one factor that makes gastric cancer more common in the region. But research suggests it usually takes even more culturally specific traits, like the aggravating diet of salty and fermented foods common in northern China, the Korean peninsula and Japan, to turn that inflammation cancerous.
Northeastern Thailand, meanwhile, is the global center for an obscure disease called bile duct cancer. Rare in the West, researchers have traced its prevalence in certain parts of Southeast Asia to a fermented fish dish called koi pla beloved by the area’s Lao people. The cooking process for the dish often fails to kill an inflammation-causing parasite called the liver fluke, and the infection can eventually lead to bile-duct cancer.
By controlling for both ethnicity and gender, researchers over the last decade have established that a particular cell mutation that causes lung cancer even in non-smokers is much more common in Asian women than anyone else. This discovery has since opened the door for two multinational pharma companies to develop and bring to market therapies that specifically target these parts of the cell, and so have proven to be particularly effective in Asian patients.
And when it comes to breast cancer, just diagnosing it in the first place can be harder because research shows Asian women are more likely to have denser breasts than Caucasians. That can obscure the tumor on a mammogram, leading doctors to miss it entirely or sometimes mistakenly identify one that isn’t there. A host of start-ups have sprung up to tackle the problem.
All these differences have led to postulation of an “Asian phenotype,” a distinctive way Asian people’s genes are expressed because of biology and environment. Where traditionally the health-care industry would seek approval for new products in the West before bringing them to Asia, now more firms are planning to go the other way for some diseases.
1. upend v.
反轉、逆轉 (fan3 zhuan3; ni4 zhuan3)
2. tailor v.
量身打造 (liang2 shen1 da3 zao4）
3. precision medicine phr.
精準醫學 (jing1 zhun3 yi1 xue2)
4. gastric adj.
胃的 (wei4 de5)
5. obscure adj. / v.
罕見的、遮蔽 (han3 jian4 de5; zhe1 bi4)
6. phenotype n.
顯型 (xian3 xing2)
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