Cancer Prevention Wizard, Zhu Yeqing: Saving More Lives from the Grim Reaper | iAsk Top Leaders

Around 3.929 million people found themselves with a malignant tumor in 2015, of which 2.338 million will ultimately succumb. More than 10,000 people are diagnosed with cancer every single day on average or around 7.5 people a minute. Cancer rates are also steadily rising relative to our historical data. There has been a continued 3.9% year-on-year increase in the incidence of malignant tumors and 2.5% in mortality rates for the better part of the last decade or so.

--This data comes from the most recent cancer statistics published by the National Cancer Center of China in January 2019.

Cancer is slowly but surely becoming the number one 'health killer' in China.

These facts paint an overarching backdrop to the 5th 'West Lake Meet' Early Cancer Screening and Prevention Cross-Disciplinary Summit Forum 'Walking with New Horizon' which opened in Hangzhou on 19 October to an expert discussion attended by numerous and leading cancer, healthcare, Internet-based medicine and insurance industry specialists as well as venture capital bigwigs on early cancer screening and how best to create a 'healthy China'.

The reality is the terrifying notion of cancer should perhaps not be quite so terrifying as often imagined. Data from the World Health Organization indicates that one-third of cancers are completely preventable, one-third can be effectively dealt with through early screening and detection, and one-third are amenable to existing medical techniques to the point where lifespans can be extended, pain reduced, and quality of life improved.

New Horizon Health Technology Co. Ltd., founded in 2013, is the organizer and sponsor behind the 'West Lake Meet' Summit. The market for early cancer screening in China was a near tabula rasa at the time of New Horizon's initial founding. Today it is a part of China's national strategy and gradually making its way into every household. New Horizon Health has been a close witness to the industry's development as the earliest and largest of China's early cancer screening company, and it is ambitious about its future endeavors in this field.

Gloria: Why did you choose to get involved in cancer prevention and screening?

Zhu Yeqing: People have tended to expend more effort on the treatment side of things in the past. Statistics indicate more than 60% of what people in China invest into their health is invested towards the last six months of their lives, which is a very sad fact.

We have become very aware the public is pretty unfamiliar with early cancer screening since the company's founding in 2013. We often see two extremes when it comes to people's health awareness: the first is they will often go to any length to treat their illness after getting it and the other is people will often forget or neglect to manage their health prior to an illness, particularly for very serious illnesses such as cancer, which they consider a remote possibility.

If we could allocate more of our limited healthcare resources to early prevention and detection, then we might end up with an entirely different quality of life, which might also change our entire life’s trajectory.

Gloria: Can stools be used in early colon cancer screening?

Zhu Yeqing: Yes. We're always trying to develop convenient and easy-to-use products. Taking colon cancer as an example, colon cancer in its initial stages does not present very obvious symptoms, and microscopic amounts of blood are not visible to the naked eye. The Poopoo-Tube which we developed is a fecal occult blood detector that looks at blood which may not be visible to the naked eye in fecal matter. You can use it to perform a crude screening for colon cancer, where you can get a sample yourself, run the test and obtain a result in five minutes. If two bars appear, then this indicates blood has been found in the stool sample, and you should head to a hospital right away for follow up. It is just as convenient as a pregnancy stick.

We have also pioneered the product 'Changweiqing®', a non-intrusive, pain-free, non-invasive, gene testing technology that can be used at home. It can detect advanced adenomas and colorectal cancer lesions over 1 cm in diameter by analyzing the genetic material in stools (stool DNA and fecal occult blood indicators) in shed cells of the gastrointestinal tract and is able to detect signs of colonic lesion earlier than blood tumor markers.

Cancer as a ‘neighbor’?

Can one preventatively guard against cancer?

We can.

Can cancer be completely eliminated or prevented?

It cannot.

The World Health Organization has published a list of more than 100 different internal and external causes of cancer, in which mood issues can also play a part. In a world much troubled by cancer, experts have stated no one can be considered 100% safe.

Cancer has been likened to a roaming 'bad neighbor' fully capable of taking our life at any moment.

Zhu Yeqing has experienced this himself. ''My mother also suffered from late stage stomach cancer. I was on a business trip 10 years ago when I suddenly got a call from my older sister saying the hospital had found a 14 cm diameter tumor in her stomach. Like most, I had considered cancer a very remote possibility.''

''I hung up then traveled overnight until I could get back home and take mom to Peking Union Medical College Hospital. I waited outside the operating room for about seven or eight hours, the most difficult of my life. My mother's surgery was a success thanks to the expert doctors at Peking Union and she has had a good post-surgery recovery. She is still in quite good health today.''

Although it may be true that most cancers are not an immediately fatal threat, the data indicates there is only a 30.99% 5-year survival for those in China; on the other hand, the 5-year survival rate in United States for the same period is as high as 66%.

What is the reason behind such a great disparity?

What is cancer? A malignant tumor. First we have to prevent the tumor and then prevent the cancer. The key to cancer prevention and early detection is early discovery. We want to discover and 'kill it' when it is in its benign phase. If we can do this earlier - cut it off before it has had a chance to become benign - then we can 'nip it in the bud' and really achieve effective prevention.

The early screening market in the United States is quite mature and there are two early screening companies in the capital market: one is Exact Sciences with a market cap of $12 billion USD; the other is Guardant Health with a market cap of $7 billion USD. For China, New Horizon Health has now become a well-deserved leader in its newly emerging cancer screening market.

This has occurred under a broader picture of increasing cancer morbidity and mortality rates in China in recent years; furthermore, the age at onset in China seems to be getting younger. The 5-year survival rate for cancer in China lags far behind that of the world's developed countries.

''Early detection a pound of cure, late detection an ounce of survival.''

Zhu Yeqing is open about the way in which the reality of cancer really only hit close to home after a personal experience. Cancer is like a 'neighbor' who lives near everyone - it can be at once endlessly distant or in front of your face. However, even if we cannot prevent many cancers, they are not as fearsome as might be believed. What is scary is actually the lack of scientific awareness around it and deficient proactive and effective methods of prevention.

A powerful idea formed in Zhu Yeqing mind: What exactly could we do for our parents or families?

Gloria: We can carry out early cancer prevention and screening tests at a hospital, such as by a colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy, and so on. What was it that New Horizon wanted to contribute in terms of cancer prevention that presented a different kind of value?

Zhu Yeqing: You can be right in theory, yet the reality is harsh. It is just like a pretty popular phrase of late in medicine - 'in the real world'. The real world of cancer prevention is that limited medical resources in China basically don't offer us the luxury of looking after all these people who aren't showing any symptoms. There are many sick people every day. Check out the Peking Union hospital. People come from all around and form long queues on the floor. China's medical resources are, given this reality, actually quite deficient or unevenly distributed.

Gloria: What did New Horizon achieve after becoming so aware of such realities? And what does it plan to achieve?

Zhu Yeqing: Let me give you an example: a woman used to have to go to a hospital to see if she was pregnant. It was a very cumbersome process, and therefore also a big time waster for a lot of women. The pregnancy test stick or test strip for women then appeared and we can see the main issue it resolved was primarily one of convenience at a low cost with great usability.

It is from such principles that New Horizon has borrowed to enable users to run tests without needing to set foot outside their door with our technology. First, we save on time and medical resources, secondly there is the issue of privacy, and thirdly of timeliness. I have a result to look at or at least it can give me a bit of a warning so I can then decide whether to go to the hospital.

Living better, living longer?

Our 'neighborhood' cancer, is actually not that fearsome. What is fearsome is that most people in China lack scientific awareness or awareness of how to prevent it and available methods of prevention. Also, most people in China are a little 'tight' with their finances as regards routine health checkups and health care.

What New Horizon Health has achieved around colon, lung, stomach and cervical cancer has been a 'home-based early screening process for common cancers', meaning that more people have been empowered with more convenient and effective health care services. This is also what Zhu Yeqing wants to achieve most: to advocate for the concept of disease prevention to reduce cancer incidence and mortality by technological means.

Health and healthcare may be an everyday topic yet has truly enormous economic and social significance. This market has gradually opened up in recent years with an increasingly sophisticated degree of public health awareness. Indeed, the extensive prospects awaiting New Horizon Health have garnered much attention from numerous investment institutions.

New Horizon Health announced the completion of a Series C funding round $66 million USD in May 2019 led by VMS Investment Group and followed by Legend Capital, SoftBank China, Qiming Venture Partners, Sherpa Capital, Duke Management Company, Acorn Pacific Venture, Yimei Capital, and Majuven. It marked the largest single investment to date in the early cancer screening field. Publicly disclosed materials put the total financing received by New Horizon Health at over $100 million USD across its 6-year period.

Gloria: $66 million USD is a very high figure and this is also within a broader context of quite a challenging market environment. The growth I've observed from New Horizon Health's product data over all of 2019 has been very impressive. What about the next step? In terms of forecasting future economic conditions, 51% of founders I've interviewed are not very optimistic about 2020; they do not think things will get better next year. What do you think?

Zhu Yeqing: From our point of view, next year will certainly be better than this year because healthcare is a 'hard need' regardless of one's other circumstances. Also, a lackluster broader context may end up focusing people’s minds more on health in particular. At the end of the day, good health is the foundation for everything. We need to get on with our lives. That is a very hard, practical reality.

'Getting on with life' implies two things: getting on with business and with our own personal lives. Investing in healthcare is going to be a future hotspot in our 'capital winter', its general presence notwithstanding. This isn't a simple 3 or 5-year cycle, but could go for 30, 50 years or even longer.

People in China have effectively dealt with issues around food, clothing, accommodation and travel in the last few decades. The next step will certainly involve paying more attention to our own health and living longer and better. This is the primary objective of a 'healthy China'.

Living better, living longer – a universal aspiration indeed.

New Horizon might yet face a very long journey given the many, varying cancers still in need of investigating and tasks in need of completing in this field.

As Zhu Yeqing says: we want to do more and more as our lifespans keep increasing. Insofar as it concerns healthcare, Zhu has gone beyond merely caring for himself, his family, or his friends to each and every stranger as well.

The act of providing others a sense of safety also comes back in a feeling of achievement. This might just be the best value-added recompense - apart from his entrepreneurship - to give this empathetic, human-centered founder.

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Gloria Ai
Gloria Ai is the founder of iAsk Media and the founding manager of iAsk Capital, and a former venture partner at the Softbank Asia Infrastructure Fund. She serves as the international brand ambassador to her hometown of Huangshan, and was Forbes 30 Under 30 in the Media, Marketing & Advertising category. She is a graduate of Harvard Kennedy School and Peking University. Prior to founding iAsk, she served as a financial news correspondent for China Central Television in New York.