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Lilly, Merck, Pfizer Agree to Share Pre-Competitive Genomics Data on Lung, Gastric Cancers in Asia

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By Turna Ray

Three pharmaceutical firms have agreed to share data through an independent organization focused on researching the pharmacogenomic underpinnings of lung and gastric cancers, two diseases prevalent in Asia.

Through the formation of the Asian Cancer Research Group this week, Eli Lily, Merck, and Pfizer are hoping to accelerate the discovery of treatments for gastric and lung cancer. As part of the collaboration, the companies have also committed "to create one of the most extensive pharmacogenomic cancer databases known to date."

This database will be developed over the next two years and will comprise approximately 2,000 tissue samples from patients with lung and gastric cancer. ACRG will establish collaborative relationships throughout Asia to collect the tissue samples and data, following good medical practices and local laws.

Researchers plan to compare the genomic signatures of these two cancers, which could lead to new treatments. Going forward, the database will include clinical data from a longitudinal analysis of patients.

“The ACRG is about sharing information for the common good,” Kerry Blanchard, Lilly's VP of drug development in China who represented the company in the ACRG’s formation, said in a statement. “This company will aid researchers around the world to develop diagnostics, tailor current treatments, and develop novel therapies to improve outcomes for affected patients with lung, gastric and perhaps other forms of cancer.”

Ultimately, the genomic data collected by ACRG will be available publicly to researchers for drug discovery efforts. "Lilly has assumed responsibility for ultimately providing the data to the research public through an open-source concept managed by Lilly’s Singapore research site," the collaborators said in a statement. Additionally, Lilly, Merck, and Pfizer will contribute technical and intellectual expertise to ACRG's research efforts.

The research collaboration is initially focusing on gastric and lung cancers, because of the large proportion of people affected by these diseases in Asia. Approximately 40 percent of patients with lung cancer in Asia harbor an EGFR mutation, which is relatively rare in Western patients. The prevalence of the EGFR mutation in Asian lung cancer patients have suggested to researchers that a different treatment approach may be needed for this population.

Similarly, although the incidence of gastric cancer is rare in the West, it is the second largest cause of cancer death in the world. More than 630,000 patients per year die of the disease throughout the world, which exceeds the total number of deaths from all cancers in the US.

"The ACRG’s formation represents a prime example of a growing trend in pre-competitive collaboration in which large pharmaceutical companies combine their resources and expertise to rapidly increase knowledge of disease and disease processes," the collaborators said in a statement.

For example, last June, during the American Society of Clinical Oncology's annual meeting, Merck and AstraZeneca announced they were collaborating to research a novel combination anticancer regimen composed of two investigational compounds, MK-2206 from Merck and AZD6244 from AstraZeneca [see PGx Reporter 08-12-2009].

Cynthia Gawron-Burke, director of external scientific affairs at Merck, has discussed the company's interest in industry partnerships during a time when big pharma is trying to cut development costs, lower attrition, and increase the number of successful drugs to market.

Similarly, Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline joined forces to spin off a new company, called ViiV Healthcare, that would house the two firms' HIV drugs. The new firm's pipeline will house two personalized medicine products, Pfizer's HIV tropism drug Selzentry, and GSK's Epizicom, which combines lamivudine and the genetically targeted abacavir.

Lilly, Merck, and Pfizer's collaboration to advance pharmacogenomics knowledge in gastric and lung cancer in Asia may inform investigational drugs in the companies' pipelines.

Lilly is investigating IMC-1121B in gastric cancer and IMC-11F8 in non-small cell lung cancer in Phase III studies. Merck is studying the agent ridaforolimus in NSCLC. Pfizer has announced it is working with Abbott Molecular to develop a companion diagnostic for its investigational agent PF-02341066, which selectively targets the EML4-ALK translocation in NSCLC patients [see PGx Reporter 09-02-2009].

Pfizer currently markets the tyrosine kinase inhibitor Sutent, which is indicated for the treatment of gastrointestinal stromal tumors after disease progression on or intolerance to imatinib mesylate. Lilly markets Alimta for advanced or metastatic nonsquamous non-small cell lung cancer.

All three firms have publicly expressed the desire to invest in personalized medicine and have inked Rx/Dx partnerships to develop companion diagnostics for their therapeutics.

Representatives for Merck, Lilly, and Pfizer did not answer questions about the collaboration ahead of press time.

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