GreatWall International Cancer Center
Gene Therapy Tourists
Source: New Statesman
How a German-born businessman turned to China and a controversial gene treatment to tackle
Desperation drove Richard Weissenborn to China. Last July, doctors back home in Houston
gave him two months to live. The cancer on his tongue had spread to his lymph nodes - the
only option, they said, was drastic surgery to remove part of his neck and face.
Weissenborn, a retired German-born businessman, went on the internet. There, he stumbled
across something that surprised him. While US hospitals are reputed to be the most advanced
in the world, only in China can patients receive gene therapy, widely believed to be the most
promising innovation in cancer treatment. He rang Dr Li Dinggang at Haidian Hospital in
Beijing, who told him there was no time to lose - so he got on a plane. Six months later, his life
has been transformed.
"I was dying and I had no hope," he said, the day before he was due to return to the United
States. "You look at me now, but you have no idea how I looked then. I was spitting blood,
everything was swollen. But last Friday I got the results from the PET scan and I'm totally
Dr Li, who was trained at the Johns Hopkins University in the US, describes Gendicine, the
gene therapy with which he treated Weissenborn and several hundred other patients, as "a
milestone on the order of penicillin". But he does not tout it as a miracle cure.
"Richard is a lucky man and he made the right decision to come to our hospital," he said. "But
only after five years, if we see Richard has survived, can we say this is really good. Right now
we go case by case."
Gendicine is manufactured in Shenzhen, in southern China, by SiBiono, a Chinese company. It
works by reactivating the p53 gene, which acts as a tumour suppressor. The drug is injected
directly into the tumour, using a virus as a medium to carry the p53 gene into the cancerous
cells. Once the p53 has been reactivated, it causes the cancerous cells to commit suicide and
the tumour to shrink. Research shows the treatment to be most effective when it is used in
conjunction with either chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
Dr Peng Zhaohui - who returned from the University of California in San Diego to found SiBonio
- dismisses criticism of the Chinese authorities for approving the treatment precipitously.
"When Gendicine was approved in 2003, we'd only had just over a hundred cases and it wasn't
a very long observation period before that. It was licensed based on short-term effectiveness,"
he admits. "But today we've had more than 4,500 cases and have followed up our patients for
None of this is by accident: the Chinese government backs companies such as SiBiono
because the long-term plan is to base the Chinese economy on innovation, not manufacturing.
Moreover, they see science as a way of reasserting what they regard as China's rightful place
in the world. Hundreds of highly skilled doctors and biochemists like Dr Li and Dr Peng are
returning from the US because research possibilities are opening up in China. Trials are much
cheaper, and there's little chance of patients suing.
Some US researchers say Dr Peng hasn't been transparent about his research because he
has published in Chinese-language and not English-language medical journals. SiBiono
continued to develop Gendicine after a patient in an American trial of a similar drug died,
possibly in reaction to the virus used as the medium. His family sued, and the US Federal Drug
Administration put trials for such therapies on hold for three years. A similar problem occurred
in France. China was able to take advantage of the slowdown.
This has caused some resentment. A press release from the British-based company Ark
Therapeutics, which is developing a gene therapy for brain tumours, states that - if approved -
its drug Cerepro "will be the world's first gene therapy product". It adds as a footnote, "outside
China", as if China were not part of the world.
But for foreigners like Weissenborn and 200 others who have received treatment here, China
is very much part of the world. He paid about £20,000, a fraction of what cancer treatments
cost in the US. Such is the demand from foreigners, the Haidian Hospital is opening a new
50-bed international centre next month, with translators to help patients communicate.
China is also pressing ahead with stem-cell research, including the use of embryonic stem
cells, whereas American research is handicapped by opposition from the Christian right.
Weissenborn has no doubts about Chinese ethics. "In the US they take five or six years. They
want all the facts and the data, but in those years thousands die because they don't get the
drug," he said.