An innovative Chinese anti-cancer drug breaks foreign monopoly

By China Economic Weekly – Global Times Source:China Economic Weekly – Global Times Published: 2014-11-25 21:03:01

Photo: IC

Ding Lieming, at that time the head of a Chinese team developing a cancer drug, remembers how he was driven out of the office of the president of a leading hospital two years ago.

"When I went into his office, he told me that he never make contact with domestic medicines. It was an unpleasant meeting. He drove me out after I had only said a few words," said Ding.

Ding did not blame him for feeling this way, as many medical experts at that time refused to prescribe domestic medicines. For a long time, most of the medicines they gave their patients were made overseas, as domestically-made medicines were not trusted.

 This October, Ding attended an academic conference held in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, where he discussed Conmana, or Icotinib hydrochloride, a new anti-cancer medicine produced by the Zhejiang-based Betta pharmaceutical company that he helped developed.

The new drug made China the third country to have developed targeted anti-cancer drugs, following in the footsteps of the US and the UK. It has caused many people to change their stereotype about Chinese medicines. "The president later realized that domestic medicines could also meet international standards and he strongly supports us now," said Ding.

Scientific breakthrough

The academic conference held on the third anniversary of Conmana's introduction to the market on October 25, attracted over 600 leading Chinese doctors and cancer research experts including Sun Yan and Yu Jinming, who are members of the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

During the conference, statistical data showed that in the past 10 years cancer treatment has become increasingly dependent on "molecular targeted therapy."

"The latest data from the US shows that the five-year survival rate for patients who had fourth stage lung cancer has reached 20 percent or above. This was mostly attributed to molecular targeted therapy," said Guan Zhongzhen, professor at the Sun Yat-sen University Cancer Center, adding that the development of Conmana was a huge achievement in this field.

Molecular targeted treatment is a type of cancer treatment that specifically targets cells that cause tumors to start and grow.

"The molecular targeted drugs we used first were Gefitinat and Erlonat," said Sun Yan, who accepted the task of leading the third stage of Conmana's clinical trials.

Chen Zhu, then minister of China's Ministry of Health, the predecessor to the National Health and Family Planning Commission, said in 2011 that the development of Conmana could be compared with China's technological achievements such as the development of the "atomic and hydrogen bombs and man-made satellites" in 1960s.

Conmana symbolizes a historical turning point for China, as it transforms into a country that can innovatively produce its own cancer medicines, said Sang Guowei, member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Breaking the monopoly

Leading general medical journal The Lancet published the results of research conducted on the effectiveness of Conmana in August 2013, writing that it had "launched a new era of China's research on anti-cancer drugs," and that Conmana was "a milestone in international clinical cancer therapy." As the first molecular targeted anti-cancer drug developed in Asia, the new drug has been praised for breaking the monopoly foreign companies had over this market in China.

About 60 percent of the drugs sold in China's domestic medical market are produced by foreign businesses. Before Conmana, only two targeted anti-cancer drugs were available in China. These were Gefitinat and Erlonat, which cost patients 16,500 yuan ($2,689) and 19,800 yuan per month respectively.

Conmana is comparatively cheaper, costing patients a maximum of 11,800 yuan per month, reports said. 

The impact of China's own brands

The number of new lung cancer cases every year in China has reached 600,000, half of whom were killed by the disease. However, only 30,000 lung cancer patients are reportedly using molecular targeted medicines.

"Just as President Xi Jinping said during his visit to a medical equipment company in Shanghai this May, many citizens can not afford to use high-end medical equipment. We should speed up the progress of creating domestic medicines to reduce the cost of treatment. We should create our own industry and our own brands," said Ding.

The Betta pharmaceuticals company and the China Pharmaceutical Industry Research and Development Association in November 2011 jointly launched a project to deliver free Conmana to cancer patients. As of October 2014, more than 13,000 patients  have been given drugs as part of the project, China Central Television reported.

Although it was hoped that, by breaking the monopoly foreign companies had over molecular targeted therapies, Conmana could lower the cost of this kind of treatment in China, these treatments are still beyond the means of ordinary cancer patients in China. The average monthly income in the country was less than 5,000 yuan in 2013, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

Conmana has been included in the health care system in nine cities of Zhejiang and Shandong provinces, where patients are required to pay less than 50 percent of the original price of the drug, local media reported.

Experts have called for more anti-cancer drugs to be made cheaply available via the national health care system. "However, the budget for the healthcare system is limited, so more research and development needs to be carried out before we can add more cancer medicines to the system," said Zhou Zijun, professor with the School of Public Health at Peking University, adding that the price of these medicines would also decrease if the market domination of international pharmaceutical companies was eliminated.

Newspaper headline: Hitting the target

Posted in: Society, Medicine

blog comments powered by Disqus