As AstraZeneca announces plans to open its first clinical pharmacology unit in China, the firm’s executive director responsible for development, John Patterson tells PharmaTimes World News about the major scientific strides being made in the country.

The Anglo-Swedish drugmaker has entered into a strategic alliance with Peking University Third Hospital to open its first clinical pharmacology unit (CPU) in China which the partners say will “enhance local clinical research capabilities and speed up access to new medicines to benefit Chinese patients”.

Under the terms of the agreement, AstraZeneca will provide Peking University Hospital with personnel training, system audits and consulting services, and invest to upgrade the facilities for clinical research of drugs for infections, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. The partners went on to claim that the CPU will accelerate access to new medicines from overseas and will expand the capabilities of early phase research for local clinical pharmacology organisations, and take China’s research capabilities “to a new level through further R&D cooperation and academic exchange with the local medical community”.

Speaking in Beijing after the deal was unveiled, AstraZeneca chief executive David Brennan said that the CPU “is using a new and innovative operating model for partnership” that will result in “a faster, more efficient and flexible link between Phase I studies and our Phase II & III clinical research projects.”

AstraZeneca is doing well on the sales front in China, having posted a 25% turnover rise there in the first half of 2007. It recently announced investments of $100 million in R&D last year and established an R&D base, the AstraZeneca Innovation Centre China at Shanghai's Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park, which will initially focus on cancer. The firm has also founded a centre in the city to strengthen global sourcing of active ingredients.

Mr Brennan concluded by saying that “we fully support China’s national focus on innovation by substantially increasing our R&D investment, both in financial terms and in terms of scientific collaboration.” This position was echoed by AstraZeneca’s executive director responsible for development, John Patterson, who told PharmaTimes World News that China and India are vitally important areas for the firm, and not only in terms of sales.

Science greatly valued in China

Speaking about China, he said it is very much “a feather in your cap to have a science degree” which may not strictly be the case in some parts of Europe. This cultural aspect, which is also prevalent in India, has resulted in youngsters devouring science at school and in many cases going abroad to get experience working in pharmaceutical companies and returning home armed with the knowledge to help them with innovative projects, Dr Patterson noted, adding that “not everyone wants to work on making generics”.

When asked about whether there is sufficient respect for patents in these countries, Dr Patterson told PharmaTimes World News that a state’s stance on intellectual property “depends on what your driver is”. China, he added, has been “smart enough to recognise” the importance of creating its own innovative pharmaceuticals market which can then grow outwardly and benefit the country socially and economically and it is making great strides to improve the enforcement of patent laws throughout the country.

In Europe collectively, the importance of patents is well understood but there is also a form of “intellectual schizophrenia”, Dr Patterson said, where individual states see healthcare in terms of cost-containment, (perfectly reasonably, he adds) but without truly recognising the importance of innovation. The USA has found a good balance, he believes, and “as the USA has flourished, China with its science base, can do the same”. By Kevin Grogan