Korea collaboration is key for cancer research

Pfizer forms research partnership with South Korea’s Samsung to analyze, treat liver cancer tumors

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SEOUL, South Korea—Aimed at enhancing the clinical outcomes of patients suffering from liver cancer, Samsung Medical Center and Pfizer Inc. have formed a research partnership to jointly analyze tumors from Korean patients to generate gene expression profiles that could hold the keys to more effective therapies.

Under the terms of the partnership, Seoul-based Samsung will provide the patient samples, while Pfizer will conduct genomic profiling on the samples and analyze the data in order to link gene signatures to patient outcomes.

To commemorate the partnership, both organizations held a signing ceremony July 14 at the Samsung Medical Center in Seoul. A research team led by top scientists and professors at Samsung, including Park Cheol-Guen, Im Ho-Young and Paik Soon-Myung, director of the Cancer Research Center, will conduct research in Seoul, while Dr. Neil Gibson, vice president of Oncology Research, will be responsible for the joint research program at Pfizer.

"We are pleased to have an opportunity to work with the world's No. 1 pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, to better understand cancer in Korean patients, with the goal of being able to send a new message of hope for patients with liver cancer across the world (especially in Asia)," says Choi Han-Yong, president of Samsung Medical Center.

Pfizer's Gibson states, "This partnership will serve as a great opportunity to combine Pfizer's know-how in drug development and Samsung's extensive genome information and technology in the liver cancer area. We further plan to share the ownership of collected and analyzed data with Samsung, contributing to advance a variety of oncology research in Korea."

In 2001, a total of 4.2 million new cancer cases—39 percent of new cases worldwide—were diagnosed among 3.2 billion persons (48 percent of the world's population) living in the 15 most highly developed countries in Southeast Asia: Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, China, The Philippines, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Indonesia, Mongolia, India, Laos and Cambodia, says Steven Adams, Pfizer's senior director of R&D Business Development.

Pfizer expanded into the market for targeted anticancer agents with the launch of Sutent, an anticancer agent used to treat an advanced form of kidney cancer. Since then, the company has been consistently investing in research and development of innovative drug candidates and potential treatments for patients with liver cancer—a type of cancer especially prevalent in Asia—to address the growing need for an anticancer drug treating liver cancer in the Asian market.

"In Asia, Pfizer has already made significant inroads with South Korean researchers in recent years," Adams says.

In 2007, Pfizer signed a memorandum of understanding with the country's Ministry of Health and Welfare, agreeing to invest $300 million in R&D in South Korea, Adams says. At about the same time, Pfizer formed a strategic research partnership with the Korea Research Institute of Bioscience and Biotechnology—and has been leading joint research ever since.

"The initial phase of the collaboration will be to characterize hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), or liver cancer, in terms of 'genetic signatures,'" he says. "In this sense, genetic signatures will be an integrated analysis of DNA copy number and RNA expression. This may allow us to define HCC into distinct segments where each segment has common elements in terms of the genetic drivers of disease progression. As we learn more about these genetic signatures and the key genes involved, we will be able to use this information in genome directed clinical trials."

Despite many scientific advances to understand the liver cancer, survival of patients remains poor, Adams says.  

"Surgery and percutaneous transarterial interventions may be used for patients with limited disease," he says. "Most patients present with advanced disease, or other complications at the time of diagnosis. Treatment options for these patients have been limited to supportive care. While the multi-targeted kinase inhibitor, sorafenib, has prolonged survival in selected patients' liver cancer, there remains significant need for additional therapies."

In 2009, Samsung was invited to join the Group of Leading Research-based Hospitals, a large-scale, national project led by the Ministry of Health and Welfare to work with leading local and global pharmaceutical companies for an open-research project designed to develop novel drugs that will help the country to cure intractable diseases.

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