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Merck looks to traditional medicine in cancer research

Published on 20/11/06 at 03:19pm

Merck is to collaborate with traditional medicine company Chi-Med to develop new small molecule anti-cancer drugs from natural products.

Chi-Med, based in Shanghai, was the first Chinese medicines company to be floated on London's Stock Exchange (in April 2006), with the aim of raising £40 million to invest in R&D. Analysts have valued the company at around £130 million.

Its collaboration with Merck will focus on discovering novel anti-cancer drugs derived from natural products that modulate oncological pathways. Financial details of the deal have not been disclosed.

Merck has joined drug company Novartis in deciding to commit its R&D core to China. Novartis is to open a major pharmaceutical R&D centre in Shanghai, which will initially concentrate on combining modern drug discoveries with those of traditional Chinese medicines to combat infectious causes of cancer endemic to the region.

The trend to move east is set to continue; GSK and AstraZeneca have set up R&D centres in neighbouring India  but China, as a fast-emerging economic superpower, has the potential to become the world's biggest market for prescription medicines.

Chi-Med's collaboration agreement is between its wholly owned drug R&D subsidiary Hutchison MediPharma, and Merck. Hutchison has a team of around 100 scientists and staff focusing on botanical drugs, semi-synthetic natural product drugs and synthetic single entity drugs. It currently has two candidates in clinical development in both the US and China, one for head and neck and non-small cell lung cancer and one for the treatment of inflammatory bowel diseases.

Christian Hogg, chief executive of Chi-Med, said: "Over the past four years, we have established a solid R&D organisation that has brought two candidates into US phase II clinical studies in the oncology and auto-immune areas. We are delighted to partner with Merck to broaden our research activities in the oncology area."

Dr Ulrich Betz, Merck's head of strategic innovation and research management, commented: "We are delighted to complement and enrich our oncology research with this collaboration. It will also allow us to extend our interaction with the emerging Chinese pharmaceutical industry that builds on the long-standing knowledge of traditional Chinese medicine combined with modern scientific technology."

Alongside its operations in China, Chi-Med also has a fledgling retail operation in the UK, owning the Sen chain of four stores. Located in affluent areas of London - Mayfair, Chelsea, Knightsbridge and the City - the outlets sell health supplements, teas, body care and skin products all based on traditional Chinese medicines.

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