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Opening the door to the Orient
January 2010
by Lori Lesko  |  Email the author
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NEW YORK—Global pharma Pfizer Inc. has joined hands with Crown Bioscience, an oncology services company based in Santa Clara, Calif., to develop novel therapeutics for cancers prevalent—and growing—in Asia.
 
The partnership will begin at Crown's new research facility in Taicang, China, near Shanghai. Without naming specific cancers, the companies emphasize their goal is to discover and advance multiple candidates for clinical development.

Under the terms of this agreement, announced Dec. 8, Crown receives an upfront payment and research funding, as well as milestone payments based on the achievement of preclinical and clinical goals as products progress. Neither company would disclose the financial details of the partnership.

The doors to Asia have opened wider to pharmaceuticals over the years as standards of living improve. Recently, China has become the great frontier for drug research, development and distribution as companies travel East in search of potential profits in the population's unmet medical needs.

With its buyout of rival Wyeth for $68 million, Pfizer aims to increase its sales in China at a rate of more than 25 percent per year, according to Allan Gabor, regional president of North Asia. But its market share remains low due to tough competition and unique challenges in this market. For example, Novartis said last month it plans to spend $1 billion to expand its R&D center in Shanghai.

Despite the hurdles, Pfizer, a $51.3 billion company, is poised for fast growth and market-share gains in China, as China's population starts to be beset by lifestyle diseases traditionally seen in the West.

Yet, both Pfizer and Crown are optimistic its latest partnership will create a demand for their products.

Alex Wu, Crown's CEO, said he is "delighted to be collaborating with Pfizer's exceptional oncology group" and "very happy that Pfizer is focusing on and dedicating resources to address a very important unmet medical need for the Asian populations. This new collaboration extends an already very successful partnership between Crown and Pfizer, and further demonstrates Crown's commitment to becoming an outstanding cancer research company in Asia."

Speaking from Taicang, Jean-Pierre Wery, executive vice president for translational research at Crown, says a higher standard of living in China created a demand for better healthcare and treatment options for cancer equal to the West.

"The Chinese and Asian economy is growing at a faster rate," Wery said. "Their income and standard of living is largely progressing and they have the ability, the desire and experience to expect better healthcare—and want healthcare designed and developed for their specific needs. We want to produce more than just a cost advantage."

Gastric, liver and esophageal cancer are the top three cancers most common to Asia, followed by lung cancer, he says.

"We are not sure why this is, but it is probably due to a mixture of genetic and environmental factors," Wery says.

Neil Gibson, chief scientific officer of Pfizer's Oncology Research unit, says he is "delighted to be working closely with Crown to implement a focused drug discovery and development strategy relating to the tumors most prevalent in the Asia region. By doing so, we believe we can capitalize on the oncology expertise of Crown and enhance our ability to bring novel therapeutics to the marketplace that will benefit cancer patients in Asia."

Pfizer spokesperson Samantha Cummis says focusing on China and Asia was a no-brainer. 

"More than one third of all new cases of cancers occur within the Asia region," Cummis says. "This significant unmet medical need makes this region of critical importance to Pfizer and Pfizer Oncology, specifically, has specific commercial goals to accomplish over the next 10 years—including enhancing commercial opportunities in Asia. The top three cancers globally are lung, gastric and hepatocellular carcinoma (cancer of the liver), but 'Asia' cancers include some other cancers common in Asia, but often rare in the West."

The etiology driving these diseases may be different in the different regions, Cummis adds.

"For example, the frequency of EGFR mutations is higher in Asian lung cancer patients than in lung cancer patients in the U.S.," she says. "We want to learn more about the biology behind the different etiologies and the Asian patient populations to develop appropriate medicines that may be specific to the region. The cause of these differences is not completely understood, but may lie in differences in genetics, infectious agents or other environmental factors." 

A large body of experimental and clinical work supports the view that EGFR (epidermal growth factor receptor) is a relevant target for cancer therapy. Gefitinib (Iressa) and Erlotinib (Tarceva) are utilized for the treatment of refractory NSCLC (non small cell lung cancer) due to the impressive response seen in about 10 to 15 percent of patients, according to egfr.org. NSCLC is one of the most common cancers worldwide.

Based in California, Crown operates wholly owned research facilities at campuses in Beijing and Taicang, China, and in Indianapolis. The drug discovery services company claims its CrystalClear and HuPrime platforms provide unique capabilities in lead optimization and translational oncology for the development of clinical candidates. 
 
Code: E011005

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