Drug powerhouses Eli Lilly, Merck & Co and Pfizer are joining forces to set up a not-for-profit company that will focus on the most commonly-diagnosed cancers in Asia.

The Asian Cancer Research Group will initially focus on lung and gastric cancers. The firms say that as many as 40% of Asian patients with the former disease demonstrate a mutation that is relatively rare in Western patients (EGFR mutation) and that has resulted in differences in response to some types of agents.

The companies add that gastric cancer “has reached near epidemic proportions in some countries in Asia” and despite its relatively low incidence in the West, it is the second largest cause of cancer death in the world, killing more than 630,000 patients per year.

Over the next two years, Lilly, Merck and Pfizer hope to create “one of the most extensive pharmacogenomic cancer databases known to date”, composed of data from 2,000 tissue samples that will be made publicly available to researchers. Lilly has assumed responsibility for providing the data to the research public through its Singapore site and the three firms will all provide “technical and intellectual expertise”.

The companies are not disclosing the costs involved in the venture but Lilly spokeswoman Judy Moore told PharmaTimes World News that the ACRG is “a multi-million dollar endeavour that Merck, Lilly and Pfizer are contributing to equally”.

Neil Gibson, chief scientific officer of Pfizer’s oncology unit, said that “environmental and genetic factors are believed to underlie the dramatic differences in the molecular subtypes and incidence of cancers” and although some progress has been achieved, the diseases remain “a huge unmet need and a disproportionate health burden to Asian patients”.