Asian companies could lead the way as market for biologic drugs is set to flourish
Shortly after the outbreak of H7N9 avian flu in
Two months earlier, researchers from five different institutions in
"China didn't have the ability to develop our own vaccine strains in the past. We used to import from abroad and then put it into manufacture," Li says.
These developments were barely noted in the press but were significant as they marked the continuation of a global trend in the industry. This trend could see Asian companies emerge as more globally important makers of biologic drugs, which many see as key to future medical advancements.
Much of the future of biologic medicine, from drugs to cure disease to the deals that will help economic growth, is now focused on
Biologics or "big molecule" drugs, as opposed to chemical formulations, are made from living organisms. They are manufactured inside living systems like microorganisms or inside the cells of plants or animals.
Biologic drugs are the next great frontier of healthcare. Global pharmaceutical companies are looking to biologic drugs as key to solving some of the most complex healthcare riddles of our time, from curing cancer to bringing back the elderly from the abyss of Alzheimer's disease.
Stepping up the research and development of biologic drugs could help drug researchers and makers in
The three best-selling drugs on the world market last year (and seven of the top 10) were biologics. The top-selling drug in 2013 was
The second-best seller was
By 2016, more biologic drugs, such as protein-based drugs, are likely to populate the top 10 list, said
By 2017, the global pharmaceutical market will be worth
These are precisely the types of drugs that aging populations in
Most of what is driving investment is whether a company is developing a drug against a disease that is relevant to Western populations, said
"Sometimes a disease is not prevalent in the US so they overlook it and this is an opportunity for
Doctors, researchers and health ministries are optimistic about biologic drugs, which are more expensive but often more effective than their chemical counterparts. This is because they reach deeper into the cellular structure of the body and are often more targeted.
Asian governments have stepped up efforts to attract companies and make it easier for them to develop more biologic drugs and, perhaps more importantly, to get them into the hands of patients faster.
"Everybody is afraid of cancer. That's why even for expensive drugs with small side effects, the government will reimburse," he says. "The government has huge expectations for new biopharmaceuticals."
Cancer is the No 1 cause of death in
China's own biotechnology industry grew fast last year, said Zhang Xiaoqiang, vice-chairman of the
Last year, China's biopharmaceutical manufacturing industry was worth
"The healthcare industry is a key driver of growth," said
Other parts of
It is precisely these smaller companies that the global giants look to for expansion, however, as the smaller firms can develop personalized products at the heart of the promising future for biologic drugs.
This is one key aspect of biologic drugs; they are more targeted and personalized. They typically focus on much more specific diseases than the broad-spectrum chemical drugs.
A chemical-based aspirin, for example, can be consumed to deal with a number of symptoms, yet no such biologic drug exists. Aspirin works by blocking pain receptors: It deals with the symptoms of an illness but not the actual problem.
Biologic drugs, however, aim to tackle the problem by reaching into the very cells of the body and fixing them, rather than simply eliminating defective cells.
One factor that could help companies in
Patents protect drugs from being copied by competitors, but the patents currently used for some best-selling biologics will expire this decade. The door will then open for companies to develop and market copies of these drugs, known as biosimilars.
The expiration of patents also means that pharmaceutical companies will need to find replacement blockbusters or new ways to shore up their bottom lines. Some are moving toward personalized medicine, which translates into fewer but much more valuable sales, as those who buy these drugs will be charged higher prices.
Many of these multinationals are looking for companies with products they can buy. And a lot of these products are being developed in
"The industry is increasingly looking to find new products to replace the blockbusters that are being lost," said
A major challenge the Asian industry has struggled to overcome is innovation. A growing biotech industry requires innovation or it is relegated to making copies of the products created and patented elsewhere. And in
Generics helped lower the price of drugs around the world but, according to
Still, the global pharmaceutical industry is increasingly looking to the East.
"Over the next few years, big biotech is going to continually be looking to
Cho, an investment banker, says the next wave of mergers and acquisitions in the biotech industry is likely to happen in
The largest biotechnology companies in the world are now as big as the largest multinational pharmaceutical companies - giant organizations that control much the world's market.
Gilead, for example, is now worth
"What you see today is that these biotech companies are getting close to big pharma size," says Cho. "There has been a lot of M&A activity recently. It is pretty clear that M&A is back," he adds.
And it is happening right here.
As Bridges points out: "The landscape is shifting and it is shifting towards
A doctor carrying out tests at the
European Weekly 06/20/2014 page14)
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