Opening the door to the Orient

Pfizer, Crown Bioscience in collaboration to treat cancers in Asia

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NEW YORK—Global pharma Pfizer Inc. has joined hands withCrown Bioscience, an oncology services company based in Santa Clara, Calif., todevelop novel therapeutics for cancers prevalent—and growing—in Asia.
Thepartnership will begin at Crown's new research facility in Taicang, China, nearShanghai. Without naming specific cancers, the companies emphasize their goalis to discover and advance multiple candidates for clinical development.

Under the terms of this agreement, announced Dec. 8, Crownreceives an upfront payment and research funding, as well as milestone paymentsbased on the achievement of preclinical and clinical goals as productsprogress. Neither company would disclose the financial details of thepartnership.

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

With its buyout of rival Wyeth for $68 million, Pfizer aimsto 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 marketshare remains low due to tough competition and unique challenges in thismarket. For example, Novartis said last month it plans to spend $1 billion toexpand its R&D center in Shanghai.

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

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

Alex Wu, Crown's CEO, said he is "delighted to becollaborating with Pfizer's exceptional oncology group" and "very happy thatPfizer is focusing on and dedicating resources to address a very importantunmet medical need for the Asian populations. This new collaboration extends analready very successful partnership between Crown and Pfizer, and furtherdemonstrates Crown's commitment to becoming an outstanding cancer researchcompany in Asia."

Speaking from Taicang, Jean-Pierre Wery, executive vicepresident for translational research at Crown, says a higher standard of livingin China created a demand for better healthcare and treatment options forcancer 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 theyhave the ability, the desire and experience to expect better healthcare—andwant healthcare designed and developed for their specific needs. We want toproduce more than just a cost advantage."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"For example, the frequency of EGFR mutations is higher inAsian 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 andthe Asian patient populations to develop appropriate medicines that may bespecific to the region. The cause of these differences is not completelyunderstood, but may lie in differences in genetics, infectious agents or otherenvironmental factors." 

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

Based in California, Crown operates wholly owned research facilities atcampuses in Beijing and Taicang, China, and in Indianapolis. The drug discoveryservices company claims its CrystalClear and HuPrime platforms provide uniquecapabilities in lead optimization and translational oncology for thedevelopment of clinical candidates. 

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