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Huge project to boost Chinese drug development

15 January 2008

Hepeng Jia/Beijing, China 

The Chinese government has agreed a multibillion-yuan drug development funding programme to boost innovation in its generics-dominated pharmaceutical sector.

The 'Key New Drug Creation and Development Programme' was approved by the State Council, China's cabinet, on 28 December 2007, although rumours about the funding had been circulating for months.

Details of the programme have not yet been published, but investigations by Chemistry World have revealed that the scale of the effort is unprecedented.

Lu Xianping, president of Shenzhen-based Chipscreen Biosciences, who participated in the consultation process for the new funding programme, says that the first batch of the funding will be 4 billion yuan (US$547.9 million) in the first five years, and an additional 7 billion yuan (US$965.5 million) over the following 10 years. 

"The new funding will be independent of any existing funding schemes in life science and pharmaceutical research"
- An Daochang

Until now, the '863 Programme' had been the major government scheme that supported pre-commercialisation pharmaceutical research. In 2007, the programme allotted 400 million yuan (US$0.55 million) to support biotech drugs in China.

'The new funding will be independent of any existing funding schemes in life science and pharmaceutical research,' said An Daochang, deputy director of China National Centre for Biotechnology Development (CNCBD). 

However, Chinese drug developers will not get their hands on the cash until a decision is made about whether the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) or the Ministry of Health will manage the majority of the funding.

Venture adventure

Lu says that the extreme lack of venture capital in China's pharmaceutical sector - mainly due to investors' reluctance to make long-term investments for drug development - makes the government's new funding scheme extremely important.

Yu Zailin, president of Beijing-based Weiming Fortune Gene Drug Research Centre, is delighted that the new scheme stresses both drug creation and drug development, giving business a much greater involvement than previous programmes, which have been more academic in focus.

However, he worries that if the funding decisions on individual projects are mainly made by academia, they may not be able to judge the market potentials of a new drug.

'In addition, the new programme should not distribute money equally among all applicants, just to balance interests,' he said. 'If it did, 60 billion yuan (US$8.28 billion), would not be enough [to cover the costs],' Yu told Chemistry World.

An says that the number of drug development projects to be funded has not been decided, and the funding will be categorised in accordance with different types of major diseases. In each of the disease categories, there will be projects for small-molecule therapies, larger biomolecules, and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

"The new programme should not distribute money equally among all applicants, just to balance interests"
- Yu Zailin

Yu is also concerned that too much emphasis on TCM could reduce scientists' opportunities to make innovative drugs. 'The opportunities for TCM to produce scientifically recognizable new drugs are much lower [than chemical and biotech medicines], yet it could consume one third of the funding pool,' he said.

Peng Zhaohui, chairman of Shenzhen Sibiono, which is the developer of the world's first commercialized gene therapy, adds that money is not the only factor in developing a thriving drug business. Effective drug regulations and a thriving medical market could play a much more significant role, he says. 

Also of interest

China's drug industry set to take off

International deals to make cheap drugs could be a foot in the door Also available in Mandarin

China invests more than $1bn in drug safety

Government agencies tackle growing 'fake drugs' problem Also available in Mandarin

China's battle with fake drugs

Preview: Fears rise over counterfeit medicines

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