With the rise of gene medicine, gene analysis technology and the latest information have become two core concerns in biotechnology. In fact, plenty of countries have pinpointed bio or precision medicine as national market strategies, and with the international DNA sequencing market increasing by about 20 percent annually, it is expected to ring in $11.7 billion dollars in 2018.
Established in 1997, Macrogen — which offers gene analysis services — is one of the nation’s leading companies bringing Korea’s world-class gene analysis technology to the global market. Of its 79.5 billion won ($68.94 million) of revenue in 2015, about 70 percent came from abroad. A genome reference study by Macrogen, which focused on a Korean sample size and was conducted with the Genomic Medicine Institute under the Seoul National University Medical Research Center, was published Oct. 2016 in the international journal Nature.
Macrogen currently holds international laboratories and offices in the United States, Netherlands, Spain, Japan, Australia, among others. Within the country, it has cooperated with hospitals — including the National Cancer Center, Seoul National University Bundang Hospital, Korea University Anam Hospital, Kyungpook National University Medical Center and Chonnam National University Hospital — to establish precision medicine research centers at each location.
Macrogen is not only well-versed in biotechnology, genetic scissors and precision medicine, all of which are lauded as engines for new growth, but it also holds a wealth of experience abroad. We met with CEO Jeong Hyon-yong to discuss Korea’s gene analysis market, international strategies and more. CEO Jeong — who entered Macrogen in 1997 and served as the American CEO since 2007 — was appointed head of the company’s genome business division in 2014 and, most recently, CEO in 2015.
|Jeong Hyon-yong CEO of Macrogen|
There’s a huge rising interest in gene analysis.
That’s because biotechnology is being seen as something can bring on the fourth industrial revolution. Though in the past there was not much consideration about what we could accomplish with living things, with the rise of gene analysis or other such tools, modern society has become a lot better equipped to understand what biotechnology really is. This means that life not only exists in the realm of observation for us, but actually has the power to be used to increase quality of life. It seems inevitable that the biotechnology and gene analysis markets are growing.
Korean bio industries are really putting effort into expanding overseas.
It is important that they come into contact with overseas markets. Even if they fall short, such direct interaction [with other companies] is of huge help. And I’m not talking about hiring an agent to go overseas or going abroad on a business trip. People have to go out into other countries with the mindset of working there. Of course it’s not easy to succeed abroad, but that shouldn’t mean you’re afraid to go out there and try it.
Can you explain a bit about the reference genome study that was published in Nature?
It was an important project in the sense that it created a standard for analyzing Asian genomes. Human DNA is made up of 3 billion bases, but only 0.01 percent of that — 300 thousand bases — accounts for the differences between individuals. What we did was create a genome on the basis of one Korean person. There currently only exist such models based on white genomes, which often posed an obstacle when we wanted to compare with Koreans. Now we have a better backbone.
With this rising interest in the bio industry has come much more governmental support, but there are also concerns about a need for improved regulation in related fields.
Regulation is most definitely necessary, and in my opinion it has to be even more detailed and well-reinforced. But it is important that these regulations be clear and well-founded. Rather than banning something entirely due to nebulous anxiety, we need to find problems at the root and thoroughly address specific areas that may go wrong. Clearly establish the rules of the game, and enforce proper punishment if they are broken or abused. The approach is to avoid negative side effects altogether, rather than prevent people from even trying things because of potential side effects. Another reason we need increased regulation is that we’ve reached a point where we as a country can no longer prevent foreign technologies from coming in. The government needs to establish rules and be diligent about them, all the while continuing to encourage and allow for further research.
There has been an ease in regulations for direct-to-consumer DNA testing in non-medical institutions.
In June of 2016, regulations were eased for non-medical institutions to conduct DNA testing in certain circumstances — such as body mass index, triglyceride levels, cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, pigmentation, balding, hair thickness, skin aging, skin elasticity, vitamin C levels and caffeine metabolism — without having to pass through medical institutions. But I don’t think that’s enough to have a real effect. I honestly wonder whether it’s wise for our country’s underdeveloped DTC market to jump the gun on DNA testing. More often than not the Korean DNA testing industry is incapable of doing what can be done abroad.
I’m not asking for the DTC market to be loosened up. We would be just as fine without DTC. However, with the huge developments we’re seeing in gene analysis technology, I do see potential in having more doctors participate and be involved in areas like disease prediction or point-of-care settings. And if that’s the direction we’re going in, it would be alright to increase regulations.
|Jeong Hyon-yong , CEO of Macrogen|
Ethical concerns are also raised often when it comes to gene analysis.
Although this might be a disadvantage for the companies themselves, it is certainly important to come to social consensus and to consider implications in the humanities. Furthermore, we cannot approach ethical questions by simply copying the standards reached by developed countries; interests within our own country should be unified, and that seems to be an area in which we are currently lacking.
Religious groups seem to be particularly opposed.
That comes with the concern that gene analysis is equivalent to “I’ll choose the baby I want to have.” But current research is headed not in the direction of establishing genes as superior or inferior, but simply to detect defects; one instance would be using blood tests to test for deformities in a child. Prenatal testing is especially applicable in an age with an increasing amount of older mothers, and we can then check for genetic diseases post-birth, as well as for various diseases such as cancer later on in life.
Are there specific aspects that you feel gene analysis industries themselves need to work on improving?
The Bioethics and Safety Act is, in some aspects, quite extreme in its regulations, and the industry is somewhat responsible for that. For instance, after some premature studies in 2000, it announced that there are genes able to predict gambling addictions or intelligence. With such claims they introduced unverified treatment methods, and even received high sums of money. This is definitely a type of practice we need to avoid.
You joined forces with LG Chem. What work do you plan on doing together?
We’re going to release cosmetic products that are matched to customers’ specific genes. As for now we plan to focus on gathering the necessary data.
You established five precision medicine research centers working jointly with Korean hospitals. What are they up to?
They work with the hospitals to conduct gene analysis research on issues like cancer. They are pursuing specialized patient treatment and precision medicine, and we may even be able to execute such treatment methods sometime this year.
You’ve already worked with industries like genetics and precision medicine, that are being recognized as the new rising fields. Do you have no plans for becoming involved with new drug development?
The ideas we’ve envisioned since establishing the company are coming to fruition one by one. But as much as I’ve been involved in a very wide range of business, I don’t yet have plans to try new drug development. I will say, though, that the work we do is ultimately connected to new drug development, and if a good opportunity arises I will definitely find a partner to do it with. Though Macrogen thus far has been involved with gene analysis research, what comes next is clinical work. This begins with examining for medical defects before birth.
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