Rates of cancer have risen dramatically in Asia, where more than six million people are diagnosed with the disease every year. That number now accounts for 50 percent of new global cases. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the occurrence of cancer in India and China is set to climb at a rate of 78 percent from now through 2030. As Asians live longer, they are developing more lifestyle diseases that were previously prevalent primarily in Western countries. Chief among these are diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
The WHO estimates that 4 million people die of cancer each year in Asia. Half of those deaths take place in China alone. In Japan, 30 percent of all deaths occur from cancer. In Taiwan, it is 28 percent. Cancer has been the leading cause of death in Taiwan since 1982. Cancer rates are also high in developing countries like India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia.
Lung, stomach and liver cancers are the most common cancers in Asia, compared to lung, breast and colorectal cancers in the rest of the world. Due to high rates of smoking and air pollution, lung cancer rates throughout Asia are climbing at a much faster pace than they are elsewhere. A 2012 report by Beijing’s Municipal Health Bureau, for example, showed that the lung cancer rate in Beijing went up by 56 percent from 2001 to 2010.
Stomach and liver cancers that occur infrequently in the rest of the world are much more common in Asia. High rates of Hepatitis B — especially in southern China and Southeast Asia — frequently lead to complications like liver cancer. And more than half the world’s new cases of stomach cancer are diagnosed in Korea and China. In Korea, the high consumption of sodium and pickled foods has been blamed for unusually high rates of stomach cancer there.
Another cancer that is rare in the West but common in Asia is nasopharyngeal cancer. A combination of environmental, dietary and genetic factors makes this type of nose cancer more prevalent in southern China and Southeast Asia than anywhere else in the world.
But cancers that are common in the West are also on the rise in Asia. Breast, colon and rectal cancer rates are all going up, in part due to increased consumption of alcohol and red meat in many parts of Asia. Recently, researchers in Singapore discovered that rates of new ovarian cancer cases there had more than doubled over the last three decades.
Governments in Asia have begun to invest more and more money into initiatives that address cancer. These range from educational programs that improve public awareness of risk factors to infrastructure development that increases treatment options. Numerous research centers, hospitals and clinics for cancer therapy have opened across Asia. These include Korea’s National Cancer Center, the National Cancer Centre of Singapore and Shanghai’s Breast Health Resource Center. Some are set up through government policy and funding, and the majority combine research and treatment programs.
But increasingly, Asian groups are partnering with Western organizations for research and treatment. One example is Shanghai’s Breast Health Resource Center, which was jointly established by the Shanghai Center for Drug Control and Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Cancer treatment strategies in Asia include chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. Treatment methods that combine surgery with chemotherapy or radiation therapy are now common, even in the region’s poorest countries. Radiation therapy is increasingly available across Asia. In China, the number of radiation oncology centers has more than doubled in the last ten years, and now stands around 1200. Korea’s radiation therapy centers have posted similar growth. Even Thailand, which currently has few such centers, is looking to expand its capacity over the next several years.
Asian cancer centers increasingly rival their Western counterparts in terms of equipment and technical sophistication. Gamma Knife treatment, intensity-modulated radiation therapy and three-dimensional conformal radiotherapy are all routine. In 2010, the National Cancer Center of Korea started offering proton therapy. In 2011, Taiwan’s Institute of Nuclear Energy Research unveiled the country’s very first positron emission tomography system for detecting breast cancer.
Meanwhile, local tomography manufacturers — like China’s Shinva — signal Asia’s growing ability to produce sophisticated medical technology on its own.
WESTERN FIRMS IN ASIA
Many Western medical device companies are expanding their cancer treatment products into the Asian market, as the demand for quality cancer treatments rises.
GE Healthcare, for example, in 2011 began a partnership with Beijing-based Concord Medical Services Holdings Ltd. The Chinese company already had a network of diagnostic imaging and radiation therapy centers throughout China. In addition, Concord Medical Services also last year opened a research and development facility in Chengdu for X-ray technology.
GE moved its own X-ray headquarters from the US to Beijing in 2011, and it has been expanding its X-ray business into smaller, rural Chinese cities since. To tap into the rural Chinese market, where high rates of growth are expected, GE has increased its number of local sales and service offices. The company has also released low-cost products specific to the Chinese market, like scaled-down computed tomography (CT) scanners and X-ray devices.
Another successful Western company in Asia is Elekta, which is expanding its services from China into the Korean market. The company installed 16 of its Gamma Knife systems in Korea in 2010. It also opened its seventh Asia-Pacific office near Seoul that same year, largely in response to the country’s growing demand for cancer treatment. Elekta is also partnering with two top medical centers in Korea for radiotherapy treatments. Among the first procedures performed was one to treat a patient with nasopharyngeal cancer.
Asia has many needs for cancer treatment, and those needs are growing. As per capita wealth increases across the region and as national healthcare standards improve, Asians will continue to demand better and more advanced medical technology. Western companies that can provide diagnostic and treatment products for cancer like CT scanners, Gamma Knife systems and image-guided radiation therapy systems will find many opportunities in Asia.