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  • Health & Medicine

Striking a deal with ‘Big Pharma’

by Kat Arney | Analysis

19 May 2008

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A little bottle of pillsIt’s an inescapable fact that drug development costs money. Current estimates suggest that its costs are spiralling towards US$1 billion for just one cancer drug to make the journey from a twinkle in a scientist’s eye to a treatment in the clinic.

But as well as being an expensive time for drug development, it’s also an exciting one. We are now witnessing a wave of ‘next-generation’ drugs, specifically designed to hit biological targets in cancer cells while leaving healthy tissues unharmed.

But given the costs of developing drugs, hard decisions need to be made. Pharmaceutical companies may develop many chemical compounds with interesting anti-cancer properties, but even the biggest don’t always have the resources to develop them all further. This means that potentially life-saving drugs end up stuck gathering dust on their shelves.

So what can we do to change the situation and bring benefits to people with cancer? Here’s where Cancer Research UK and Cancer Research Technology’s Clinical Development Partnerships (CDP) programme steps in.

Launched in 2006, the programme aims to take shelved drugs from pharma companies, develop them further if needed, and ultimately put them into clinical trials. Licensing arrangements mean that the company retains the rights over their drugs, and if they ever get to market, Cancer Research UK will receive a share of the royalties to invest back into our vital work.

In particular, the CDP programme is designed to push forward development of drugs for rarer cancers. These often get overlooked in favour of treatments for more common (and therefore profitable) forms of the disease.

So with some excitement we announced today that the first CDP deal has been struck with AstraZeneca over a compound with the catchy name of AZD0424. This is a tyrosine kinase inhibitor – a chemical that blocks the function of important signalling molecules called tyrosine kinases that tell cells to multiply.

These kinases are often hyperactive in cancer cells, repeatedly sending their messages out. Ultimately this means that cells multiply out of control, forming a tumour, so blocking kinase activity seems like a sensible approach to treating cancer. In fact, some tyrosine kinase inhibitors are already on the market – namely Glivec (imatinib) and Tarceva (erlotinib), mostly used to treat blood cancers and lung cancer, respectively.

To get a bit more technical, AZD0424 blocks a tyrosine kinase called Src. Increased levels of Src have been found in many types of cancer, including breast, lung, bowel, oesophageal, skin and cervical tumours, and they are often linked to a poor outcome. This is partly down to the fact that Src can help cancer cells to start spreading in the body, as well as encouraging the growth of blood vessels into the tumour.

Lab tests and animal experiments of AZD0424 have been very promising so far, and the next step is to take it forward for further development by Cancer Research UK’s Drug Development Office and Cancer Research Technology – our wholly owned commercialisation and drug development company. Although the exact details haven’t yet been finalised, it’s likely that this will involve:

  • Developing a form of the drug that is suitable for patients to take (i.e. a tablet),
  • Investigating ways to measure the effectiveness of the drug against tumours in the body,
  • Studying how it is broken down in the body,
  • Figuring out how to make it in enough quantity for a clinical trial, and
  • Carrying out final toxicology tests.

If all goes well, AZD0424 is expected to make it into early stage clinical trials within the next 18 months. So we’re still a fair way from having a commercially available drug, but without the CDP arrangement, AZD0424 might never have made it any further.

In the words of Keith Blundy, CEO of Cancer Research Technology,

“AZD0424 is an interesting drug with real potential for patient benefit.”

Now it has a chance to reveal this potential.

The CDP arrangements are a real “win, win, win” situation for everyone involved. The pharmaceutical companies win, because the drugs are being taken forward at no costs to them, and could potentially generate sales at the end of the process. Cancer Research UK wins, because our share of the royalties will ultimately come back to fund more of our research into diagnosing, treating and preventing cancer.

But the real winners here are cancer patients. Thanks to the CDP programme, we should hopefully see more and more potential cancer drugs coming through the pipeline and into clinical trials. And although many drug candidates don’t make it all the way to the market, the more compounds we put into tests, the more success stories we’ll get. And that can only be a good thing.