Thu, Oct 04, 2018 - Page 5 News List

Pharmas designing drugs for Asian patients


A projection of a doctor is seen on a screen at UK British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca’s China Commercial Innovation Center in Wuxi, China, on Sept. 15.

Photo: Reuters

For decades, much of the pipeline of medical innovation has flowed from West to East. Now a string of companies are attempting to upend that trend with new drugs and products tailored to Asian bodies and lifestyles.

There is the Singapore-based drugmaker tackling an obscure cancer that is rare in the West, but common in Asia, where it has been linked to a popular fish dish.

Med-tech start-ups are preparing to sell tests to detect tumors more accurately in Asian women with denser breast tissue, including one wearable device that slips into a bra.

Even big pharmaceutical firms like AstraZeneca and Roche Holding now have drugs targeting a lung cancer-causing mutation most often found in women from East Asia.

This simple yet radical departure comes as Asia’s booming economies and rising incomes enable higher spending on healthcare. That is providing incentive for more pharmaceutical companies to set up shop in the region, whether it is Western firms creating research and development centers to develop drugs for local populations, or new Asian drugmakers springing up.

Consultancy Frost & Sullivan predicts that total revenue for the Asian healthcare industry would jump 11 percent this year to US$517 billion.

Many of the researchers focusing on Asia have a simple starting point: Diseases and their cures can sometimes work differently in different populations, and a one-size-fits-all regimen tailored to the West is not sufficient.

The approach is cropping up most often in cancer care in Asia, home to tumors that are rare in the West.

“The patients are here, the tumor samples are here and also the basic know-how,” said Brigette Ma (馬碧如), a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who specializes in new drug development. “By acknowledging diversity, not just in cultural and economic needs — by acknowledging diversity in terms of cancer care — we are getting the drugs to where they are needed.”

The shift is part of a broader trend sweeping through the global healthcare industry called precision medicine, which seeks to tailor treatment to a person’s specific genetic makeup and circumstances, including the ones commonly shared among people of the same ethnic group or culture.

In Asia, Japan has long been an important market for the healthcare industry and a site of new discoveries. However, the rapid growth of the rest of the region is heightening its importance as a whole and diversifying the industry’s focus in it.

Singapore-based biotech company Aslan Pharmaceuticals is now conducting late-stage human tests for a drug targeting bile duct and gastric cancers.

The prevalence throughout Asia of a stomach-infecting bacteria that can lead to cancer-causing inflammation is one factor that makes gastric cancer more common in the region.

However, research suggests it usually takes even more culturally specific traits, like the aggravating diet of salty and fermented foods common in northern China, Korea and Japan, to turn that inflammation cancerous.

Meanwhile, northeastern Thailand is the global center for an obscure disease called bile duct cancer. Rare in the West, researchers have traced its prevalence in certain parts of Southeast Asia to a fermented fish dish called koi pla beloved by the area’s Lao people. The cooking process for the dish often fails to kill an inflammation-causing parasite called the liver fluke and the infection can eventually lead to bile-duct cancer.

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