Pfizer has eye on Asian diseases for foothold in Asia

Pfizer will use its clinical research unit in Singapore as a base for conducting trials for diseases prevalent in Asia

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SINGAPORE—Pfizer has been on record recently touting a "golden age" of drug discovery and predicting more products with sales over $1 billion even as it loses patent protection in Lipitor in Nov. 2011, which accounted for $11.4 billion in sales last year. And certainly treatments it got from buying rival Wyeth for $68 billion in October 2009 are also on its mind as it reassures investors about its pipeline and future. But in the midst of that, at a press briefing with Steve Yang, head of Pfizer's R&D in Asia, there are indications that Pfizer may see much of the gold in its golden age in Far East, particularly with regard to cancer and diabetes.

With its clinical research unit in Singapore—which now has a volunteer list of 14,000 healthy individuals—serving as its base for Asia-specific work, Pfizer has been researching in Asia for about three-and-a-half years, and the Singapore research unit is one of three worldwide, with the other two based in Brussels, Belgium and in Connecticut in the United States.

No new drugs have come out of that Asian research unit yet, but Martin Mackay, president of R&D at Pfizer, has expressed confidence that something will, having said, "There are certainly compounds in development. Different patient populations actually have different etiology of disease. Now that we have that force in Asia, I think it's going to lead to some profound discoveries."

Yang said in the recent press briefing that Pfizer will use its clinical research unit in Singapore as a base for conducting trials for diseases prevalent in Asia.

"Prevalence rates for specific types of cancer are significantly higher [in Asia], for example gastric cancer, liver cancer, and head and neck cancer, probably due to factors such as diet, environment and genetics," notes Yang. "People often talk about personalized medicine and the challenge and opportunity is for scientists not only to understand the disease at a collective level, but for each different sub-population, whether we can identify specific mutations that are most relevant and then match that with our own drugs."

Mackay has also said that Pfizer is interested in diabetes in Asia, a condition that is expected to be a significant public health problem in that region going forward. "I am intrigued by diabetes. Again the etiology is different in diabetes and how we can apply the science and come up with diabetes medicines exclusively for Asians."

As part of its Asian efforts, Pfizer recently announced a partnership with antibiotic developer MicuRx Pharmaceuticals Inc., which has research units in the San Francisco Bay Area in the United States and in Shanghai in China, and China-based Cumencor Pharmaceuticals to develop new drugs to fight drug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB). Cumencor is applying MicuRx's proprietary technology platform to discover and develop novel antibiotics for MDR-TB.

Under the terms of the agreement, Pfizer will provide an upfront payment, funding for the discovery and preclinical development of novel antibiotics to treat MDR-TB, and payments linked to the development and commercialization of any antibiotics developed through the collaboration. All collaboration research will be conducted at the ZhangJiang High-Tech Park in Shanghai.

"We are extremely pleased to join forces with Pfizer, a world-class pharmaceutical company that has developed numerous successful antibiotics to treat infectious disease worldwide," says Zhengyu Yuan, president and CEO of MicuRx. "With the rapid increase of MDR-TB incidence in the emerging markets including China, we believe that it is critical to pursue development of new therapeutic options for patients suffering from this devastating disease around the world."

Also, in February of this year, Eli Lilly and Co., Merck, and Pfizer announced the formation of the Asian Cancer Research Group Inc., (ACRG), an independent, not-for-profit company established to accelerate research and ultimately improve treatment for patients affected with the most commonly-diagnosed cancers in Asia.

The goal of the ACRG is to improve the knowledge of cancers prevalent in Asia and to accelerate drug discovery efforts by freely sharing the resulting data with the scientific community.

Initially, the ACRG will focus on lung and gastric cancers, two of the most common forms of cancer in Asia. Gastric cancer has reached near epidemic proportions in some countries in Asia, and despite its relatively low incidence in the West, gastric cancer is the second largest cause of cancer death in the world, killing more than 630,000 patients per year, more people than all cancers combined in the United States.

"Although some progress has been achieved in the last few years in understanding and treating these cancers, they remain a huge unmet need and a disproportionate health burden to Asian patients," says Dr. Neil Gibson, chief scientific officer of Pfizer's Oncology Research Unit.

Over the next couple years, Lilly, Merck and Pfizer have committed to create one of the most extensive pharmacogenomic cancer databases ever, which would be composed of data from approximately 2,000 tissue samples from patients with lung and gastric cancer. They plan to make it publicly available to researchers and, over time, further populate it with clinical data from a longitudinal analysis of patients.

So, outside of Asia-specific opportunities, where else does Pfizer's optimism lie? In an interview with Bloomberg, Mackay noted, "We have a very replete pipeline in key areas such as cancer, Alzheimer's disease, pain and inflammation" and added that Pfizer also counting on treatments for infectious diseases.

Mackay added that rather than trying to replace Lipitor's $11.4 billion in annual drug sales with one mega-blockbuster, the company will rely on a variety of "smaller" blockbuster drugs to make up the difference, and Pfizer won't be wasting time on drugs that don't show a lot of promise early in their development.

"Flatliners are flatliners, and they kill us unless you find them really early," Mackay told Bloomberg.

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