Developing innovative and affordable medicines for Chinese patients was a major factor behind scientist Lu Xianping’s decision to return from overseas and set up a pharmaceutical company more than a decade ago.
During the past 14 years, Lu and other medical scientists who returned from overseas have developed Chidamide, the world’s first oral HDAC inhibitor.
Histone deacetylase inhibitors have long been used in psychiatry and neurology as mood stabilizers, and to combat epilepsy. More recently, they have been investigated as a possible treatment for cancer and parasitic and inflammatory diseases.
Chidamide, which costs significantly less than similar products overseas, went on the market in March after receiving regulatory approval in January.
“We had a simple but great dream－to develop original pharmaceutical products in China,” said Lu, president of Shenzhen Chipscreen Biosciences in Guangdong province.
After completing his studies at the University of California, Lu and five other scientists returned to China and set up the company, which specializes in research and development of innovative medicines.
China is the world’s largest manufacturer of medicines, with more than 7,000 pharmaceutical companies, according to Xinhua News Agency.
Lu said that more than 98 percent of medicines in China are generic versions that were originally developed by overseas companies.
“China has a large number of pharmaceutical companies, but they have lower profits, as they have long been simply copying,” he said.
According to Xinhua, the research and development of innovative medicines costs a great deal. There are high risks but high rewards, given that a new medicine usually takes more than 10 years to produce and $1 billion to take it to market.
After receiving financial support from investors, Lu’s company was formed in May 2001 in Shenzhen. It was China’s answer to Silicon Valley in California.
“Like any startup business, we were not short of technology but faced a big challenge in finding financial support at the time,” Lu said.
Two of the first five scientists in Lu’s team left the company in 2005 because of financial pressure. But Lu, 52, continued the business, with patents for Chidamide being authorized to overseas pharmaceutical manufacturers a year later.
“The patent authorization helped us to get through a difficult time. We have now undergone six rounds of financing, and we believe Chidamide will be a success both in the domestic and overseas markets,” he said.
After launching Chidamide, which is especially effective in curing lymphatic cancer, the company’s sales are expected to reach 500 million yuan ($80.64 million) within five years.
But Lu’s dream is for more than just surging sales－he hopes that more Chinese patients will be able to afford the medicine.
It costs a patient about 26,000 yuan a month to receive Chidamide treatment.
Lu said the company plans to give free treatment each year to 40 Chinese patients on lower household subsistence allowances.
Sang Guowei, an academic at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said the development of Chidamide has helped to promote an image for medicines developed in China.
“It will encourage more Chinese pharmaceutical companies to increase their investment into the research and development of original medicines,” Sang said.