There’s a lot of talk these days about India and China as potential markets and as sources for cheap manufacturing and R&D. But the real potential of these countries is far more interesting: As China and India (and Brazil, Russia, and Korea) learn to create new products, they’re going to do it at price points that make sense for their own domestic marketsâ€”which means substantially lower than US or European prices. The drugs they create may not measure up to the standards of approval in the developed world, but those standards, these days at least, have more to do with politics and preferences than they do with a practical risk/benefit ratio.
Let the emerging market come up with low-cost must-have medicines, though, and we’ll see how long the US fights to keep them out. A handful of sucessful medicines from India and China could end up doing a remarkable amount to transform the US drug industry and US drug regulation.
I finally met a pharm exec who’s pursuing that insight as a way to build his company, when Abe Abuchowski, founder and COO of Prolong Pharmaceuticals, stopped by to visit not long ago. You’ve probably heard Abe’s name already. He’s the biotech pioneer who developed the technique of attaching polyethylene glycol (PEG) to protein-based drugs. PEGylation, the subject of Abuchowski’s thesis at Rutgers back in 1971, proved to be an effective way to reduce the immunogenecity of biotech drugs and to increase the amount of time they remained in the body, and it’s gone on to become one of the field’s gold-standard technologies.
Abuchowski himself went on to found Enzon (starting with just half a dozen people in 1983), which he developed into a fuly integrated company. “We had to,” he says. “At the time you couldn’t just hire services like toxicology.” Enzon’s pegylation technology led to several important products, including Adagen (pegylated adenosine deaminase, for severe combined immune deficiency disease, just the fifth biotech product to win FDA approval), Oncospar (pegaspargase for certain cancers), and the blockbuster PegIntron (pegylated interferon A, for Hepatitis C, developed with Schering Plough and approved in 2001).
With PegIntron, Enzon was profitable, but it turned away from pegylation, leaving the field to Nektar. (The company announced earlier this week that it was considering divesting itself of its biotech business.) Abuchowski, meanwhile, had left in 1996, spending more than a decade as a stay-at-home dad and part-time consultant. He never lost the entrepreneurial urge, though, and in 2005 launched Prolong. (The name refers in part to the way that pegylation prolongs the time a protein spends in the body.)
The new company’s strategy is to develop patented, second-generation biotech products in India and China, using Prolong’s expertise in pegylation (which Abuchowski says is not part of the Indian/Chinese biotech arsenal) and to partner with companies able to manufacture at low cost.
Low-hanging fruit is the name of his game. Within the past month or so, Prolong announced a partnership with Zydus Cadila, one of India’s 30,000 biotechs, to produce a pegylated erythropoietin (an anti-anemia drug in the same class as Amgen’s Epogen and J&J’s Procri) and another deal is in the works in India for a pegylated granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (GCSF) drug, similar to Amgen’s Neupogen. When last I spoke with Abuchowski, he was just back from China, where he formed a tentative agreement with a biotech company over one, or possibly two, products.
“All the modern technology we have here they are copying,” says Abuchoswki. “All the first generation of biotech products are being made there and brought into the marketplace. The benefit is that they are starting with scientific knowledge that is mature rather than developing that knowledge from scratch. They have the benefit of waiting for 20 years, then building the most modern facilities with the cheapest labor and developing these products at the lowest cost possible. There are an unbelievable nmber of biotech companies, and being able to link up with a company like ours will allow them to differentiate themselves from the others in the ferocious competition that goes on there.”
Expect an announcement soon. In the meantime, more news from Prolong:
The company has just received a grant from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute to supply Prolong’s developmental blood replacement product (which, not surprisingly, is based on pegylated hemoglobin) for researchers in such areas as combat surgery.
“It’s exciting to us because it changes the dynamic of the company,” says Abuchowski. “Instead of raising money to test our product, we can sell it to the research community while still working on it as a product, and make a little money on it. And researchers will find new uses for it. We hope that various branches of the military will want to buy it for their own application.”