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China bounds ahead in gene therapy

A Chinese scientist works at the national laboratory of medical genetics of China in Central South University.

KAI RYSSDAL: Getting sick while you're traveling can be a drag. Business trips are put on hold. Or vacations are ruined. But increasingly, Americans are traveling because they're sick. Maybe treatment abroad's cheaper. Or medical research here is moving slower than it is in other countries. Gene therapy's a good example. It's limited in the U.S. But China's been moving forward in some fields. And a trickle of Americans with terminal cancer are traveling. Marketplace's Jocelyn Ford spent some time in a Beijing hospital.


NURSE: Shaun!

MOM: She brought you corn.

NURSE: Chinese corn.

MOM: Chinese corn!

JOCELYN FORD: Seven-year-old Shaun Pierce is homesick for his friends and familiar food. Today, a nurse snuck him a piece of corn from the staff cafeteria . . . for a small price.

SHAUN:"My corn! My corn corn! It's mine!"

NURSE:"Give me a kiss, I give you a corn."

DAD: Oh! He doesn't even give his mom a kiss!"

Since arriving at Beijing's Haidian hospital three months ago, the mischievous blond boy has become the darling of the cancer ward. He's here because he ran out of options in the United States. Shaun has a malignant liver tumor. It's nearly 100 percent fatal.

The best cancer centers in the U.S. had told his mother Robin they couldn't do anything more. Go home and make Shaun comfortable.

ROBIN PIERCE: There was no hope, you know, there was no hope. Western medicine and chemotherapy, it's not effective."

The family learned China was the first and only country to approve gene therapy, a drug called gendocine. The basic idea was developed by a U.S. company. So the family got on a plane and headed for Beijing.

China is not yet the world leader in cancer research and treatment, but it is climbing fast. Thanks in part to people like oncologist Dr. Li Dinggang who heads Haidian Hospital's cancer ward. Dr. Li returned to China after spending five years at Johns Hopkins.

LI DINGGANG:"I think the environment in China for gene therapy is better than America."

Over the past two years, he's used gene therapy to treat about 100 foreign patients from 30 countries. The Chinese government figures its industry can't compete in traditional cancer treatments like chemotherapy. So it's pushing scientists to forge ahead in areas like biotechnology.

LI:"21st century will be biotech century. In China the government encourage the doctors and scientists to do cancer research."

This is happening at a time of conservatism toward gene therapy in the United States. Investment in the U.S. slowed after an 18-year-old Pennsylvania boy died in a gene therapy trial seven years ago. His parents filed a lawsuit. The Food and Drug Administration put other trials on hold.

Michael Chermak exports cutting edge cancer technologies to China.

MICHAEL CHERMAK:"It had a chilling effect on the financial backing because once the time frame extended from development to market then investors had alternate choices.

Choices to invest in drugs that would get to market faster. Patients in China are less likely to file lawsuits, and Chermak says Chinese regulators are more open-minded to new treatments.

China has a lot more cancer patients, and that makes it cheaper and faster to do clinical trials.

CHERMAK:"A company that may have only $10 million or $20 million can get a drug to market here in China, and that may take $80-plus million in the United States."

The U.S. is still the biggest market for cancer therapies. But China has the most patients, and multinational pharmaceutical companies are beginning to invest in research here and to conduct clinical trials.

At the Haidian hospital, Shaun has become an expert in the latest cancer medicines, and how they're delivered through holes in his body called ports.

SHAUN:"If you don't have a port it goes in here . . .

Dr. Li Dinggang has an arsenal of new therapies not available in the U.S. In addition to gene therapy, he has traditional Chinese medicine and Endostar, another drug conceived of in the U.S. but approved first in China.

But Dr. Li says it will be several more years before they have enough data to demonstrate the effectiveness of some of the new treatments. A few weeks after arriving, Shaun's mother Robin believed the combination treatments were helping her son. She had hope.

ROBIN PIERCE:"When we arrived we still needed a wheelchair in the airports and we had to carry him places. Now he's walking up and down nine flights of stairs.

But Dr. Li didn't have a miracle cure. Shaun made it to his 8th birthday. But he started to go downhill. Dr. Li thinks, like for many of his foreign patients, the treatment would've been more affective if Shaun had started when the tumor was smaller.

Shaun's family decided to go home to Michigan before Shaun became unable to travel.

In Beijing, I'm Jocelyn Ford for Marketplace.

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