AstraZeneca has joined the growing stable of pharmaceutical multinationals taking not only their manufacturing but their drug discovery and development efforts to the business-friendly environment of Singapore.

The UK company has signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCSS) and the island state’s National University Hospital (NUH) for preclinical and clinical development of existing AZ compounds with potential in inoperable hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC).

Dr Brent Vose, vice president of AstraZeneca’s Oncology Therapeutic Area, pointed to the “huge unmet need for treatment of liver cancer in Asia, and particular East Asia, where there are three-quarters of the world’s HCC patients”. The cancer is responsible for around one million deaths worldwide each year, with more than 90% of deaths occurring within five years.

Two AZ compounds have already been identified for clinical screening in inoperable hepatocellular carcinoma by the NCSS and the NUH during 2008 and 2009. These are AZD6244 (ARRY-142886), a selective MEK inhibitor that blocks pathways implicated in cancer cell growth; and AZD1152, a selective cytokinesis inhibitor with specificity for the protein Aurora B kinase.

The clinical development collaboration gives the Singapore institutions access to AZ compounds that have already been through initial clinical testing in the West. Additional compounds will be made available at a rate of one per year for the duration of the partnership, which runs until 2012.

The NCSS and the NUH will also have access to up six novel drug candidates per year for preclinical assessment of activity in the mouse in vivo primary HCC explant model.

The memorandum of understanding further includes a training programme placement with the Manchester Cancer Research Centre, with which AZ has a formal research alliance. Supported in part by the Singapore Economic Development Board, this initiative is aimed at training a pool of clinical research professionals for both private- and public-sector research laboratories.

According to Vose, AstraZeneca is “committed to the research and development of new, targeted anticancer therapies in Asia to improve the lives of cancer patients, beginning with those affected by HCC … We have a number of promising candidates in development and look forward to seeing the results of some key studies throughout the next year”.