Friday, April 6, 2012

Putting Korea on the Map of RNAi Therapeutics

As RNAi Therapeutics is taking a little breather after a hectic and overall quite positive start to the year, I will reflect today on RNAi Therapeutics development in a country that is probably not on your radar when it comes to innovative drug development: Korea (population: ~50 million).

About the size of Kentucky (the 36th largest US state) and located on an peninsula between economic powerhouses China and Japan, the economic development of South Korea has been nothing short of spectacular. 60 years ago one of the poorest country on earth, it is now a developed economy and a leader in various industries including electronics and automobiles. It would be arrogant and a big mistake to view the Apple vs Samsung Tablet Wars as another example of a technologically inferior Asian company 'slavishly' copying Western products and willfully ignoring intellectual property. Instead, it may be a better example that once an attractive market has been spotted and the commitment to excellence been made, the resources to turn it into a reality exist in Korea.

Admittedly, innovative drug development in this country is still nascent and requires improvements on many levels. Furthermore, while its population and yours truly enjoy a quality universal healthcare system, paying $100.000 for a year’s worth of drug therapy is virtually unheard of in this country and it is still unclear where the drug reimbursement chips will have fallen once the first RNAi Therapeutics get approved.

These uncertainties, however, are not holding back RNAi Therapeutics development. It might surprise you that there is probably more therapeutic RNAi development activity in Korea than for example in Germany, a country which made its mark in the early days of the technology (see Tuschl, Kreutzer-Limmer/Ribopharma), but where lack of risk-taking entrepreneurial spirit caused RNAi Therapeutics to join the ranks of many other failed biotechnology efforts there. Even the last Man standing in Germany, Silence Therapeutics, is propped up by largely foreign money and I wonder for how much longer.

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By contrast, the RNAi Therapeutics industry in Korea is quite healthy, although the recent global RNAi Depression has certainly also left its mark there. There are easily over a dozen companies engaged in RNAi therapeutic development: from the small pure-play to the research/reagent vendor looking to expand into therapeutics to the large integrated Chaebol.

With the exception of the pure-play company, it is interesting to note that most efforts are motivated by established business interests rather than by considering the absolute medical and commercial potential of RNAi Therapeutics per se. This can include the selling of oligonucleotides (note: some of the largest oligonucleotide vendors come from Korea), or chemistry and biology expertise which might for example be useful for RNAi delivery purposes (note: Korea is a center of biosimilar development).

The latter tendency of tying RNAi Therapeutics to existing, often non- or only indirect pharmaceutical business interests has the advantage of providing certain funding security. It, however, also carries the risk that should the science not neatly fit into the specific motivations, RNAi Therapeutics could get the axe despite of what I consider the rapidly expanding set of diseases that can be addressed with today’s RNAi Therapeutics technologies.

Of course, this is written by somebody with an interest in seeing resources allocated to RNAi Therapeutics development. You could also take the view that the conservative stance of Germany finds vindication in the good employment numbers and less ugly economic picture amid the EURO crisis, and has made the right decision to virtually exorcise innovative drug development (and have the US do it for them). In fact, in many regards Korean business attitudes are not all that different and closely tied to utility and feasibility. A good illustration of that are the changing names of the College at Dongguk University (Seoul) where I currently hold a position as Assistant Professor:

1) until 1994 College of Agriculture and Forestry
2) 1994-2008 College of Life Resources and Science
3) 2008-2009: College of Life and Science
4) 2009-now: College of Life Sciences and Biotechnology (largely non-drug)

It is a fair question whether it is sustainable to regard RNAi Therapeutics as an extension of ‘safe’ and (still) profitable business activities. Also as a result of scientific inefficiencies that arise from putting RNAi Therapeutics into the strategic straight-jacket of corporations, it would be liberating to see especially the larger Korean companies start viewing RNAi Therapeutics more as an independent value creation opportunity. Once that happens, the country’s pharmaceutical industry stands a good chance at emerging as a leader in one of the major drug development platforms of the future.


Anonymous said...

There is some great work being done by Seoul National University in areas such as Alzheimners and this has been going on for a number of years. Korean organisation hold a number of RNAi patents and have applied for serval more, however, none of the work seems to be heading for the clinic. The researchers seem to be doing the work purely for the research which would seem to contrast with your portrayal of their commercial interests in RNAi.

Dirk Haussecker said...

There are some places where science is done merely for the science (esp. at the SNU), and this might increase with the wealth of the country, but it is still a relatively small portion of the overall research. RE your example: the fact that they are working on a specific human disease and have filed for patents suggests to me that they are not just doing it for the science. Getting into the clinic is always tough and can have a number of reasons.

Anonymous said...

To follow up on my previous comment here is a link to a SNU patent application for a cure for Parkinson's

Anonymous said...

That 'cure' should have the Benitec supporters scratching their heads. There seems no doubt that shrna was a central tool to the discovery but it does not seem to play a part in the actual 'cure'. Net result to Benitec if this gets commercialised - $0.00.

Anonymous said...

Well if they hadn't sold reagent rights to sigma Aldrich...
Anyway the human therapy expressed rnai much more interesting

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