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South Korea pharmaceutical potential

Source: Dr Faiz Kermani
Published: 07/01/07
Click here for jobs in Asia

Despite the ongoing risks and expense of drug development, new players are attempting to enter the market. While attention in Asia focuses on India and China, a number of Asian companies from other countries are showing a surprising level of innovation and determination (1). South Korea is one example of how these new players are trying to broaden their horizons and overcome the obstacles that stand in their way of bringing products to the global marketplace (1).

Increasing R&D activity

Like many other emerging pharmaceutical sectors in Asia, the South Korean pharmaceutical industry has concentrated most of its efforts in generics. However, companies have been attempting to move into the area of innovative R&D and the government has tried to support efforts in this area (1). The government is keen for the pharmaceutical sector to contribute to South Korea’s economic success in the way that it does for major industrialised countries.

Despite the efforts to become more innovative the South Korean pharmaceutical industry as a whole is still perceived as having certain weaknesses. For example, whilst it has been described as being competitive with its counterparts in the major industrialised countries in terms of chemical synthesising technologies, it is considered less competitive in drug screening, safety evaluation, clinical development and marketing (2). Therefore South Korean companies have found partnering to be an ideal way in which to become more involved in R&D. According to the US Department of Commerce, local companies have been keen to partner foreign companies where there is joint investment in R&D as well as through licensing agreements (2).

There are currently around 79 local pharmaceutical companies and they have 86 research laboratories. R&D spending as a proportion of sales is between 4% and 6% and R&D personnel represent nearly 12% of the total workforce. In 2002, domestic companies were involved in 90 research projects, with most of these falling into the cancer, anti-infectives, metabolic diseases and immunology categories (3). Despite running these projects, when surveyed, 97% of local companies viewed partnerships with global organisations as being of benefit to their commercial objectives (3).

South Korea’s innovators

Although most of South Korea’s companies are involved in the manufacture of generics, certain companies have invested in R&D for novel drugs and have achieved some success (1).

In 1999, SK Chemicals launched Sunpla, a third generation platinum complex anticancer drug, onto the local market. The launch of Sunpla was considered as proof that the domestic industry was capable of innovation. SK Chemicals has been focusing its R&D efforts on cancer, obesity and erectile dysfunction (1).

In 2001, Daewoong Pharmaceuticals launched Easyef (epidermal growth factor) for the treatment of diabetic foot ulcers (4). Since then it has pursued a number of foreign collaborations in order to internationalise its work. The South Korean company Choongwae managed to bring the orally active fluoroquinolone antibiotic Balofloxacin (Q-roxin) to its national market, despite Chugai and Ciba having discontinued work on this compound in 1995 due to a lack of efficacy and the changing focus of Chugai’s R&D. Choongwae bought the rights for the drug following Phase II trials and then managed its subsequent development and launch. In 2001 Balofloxacin was approved by the Korean FDA in for urinary tract infection (5).

Making drug development a success

To better coordinate the activities of the domestic pharmaceutical industry and boost its standing, the Korea Drug Research Association (KDRA) was established in 1986 (6). The KDRA is a nonprofit organisation that represents its member companies and promotes joint projects between industry and academic institutes (6). The KDRA manages the Korea New Drug Award scheme to reward innovation and it has set up the PharmaTech Business Center to advise companies on technology transfer issues.

The KDRA believes that its domestic industry is becoming more innovative and that the initial technical problems associated with drug development are being overcome. According to the KDRA, since the launch of SK Chemical’s Sunpla in 1999, a total of eight new locally researched drugs have been launched on the domestic market following approval from the Korea Food and Drug Administration (KFDA). Furthermore, it describes 21 projects as being at various stages of clinical development, with another 47 at the preclinical stage (6).

Drug development is a lengthy process and therefore trends need to be analysed over decades, but the initial output of South Korea’s industry does appear to be promising (1). Some of these companies have been described as pursuing clinical development in foreign markets such as the USA, and aside from drug development, certain companies have achieved success in exporting their technologies abroad. If new successful companies do emerge from Asia, South Korean firms will be well poised to be amongst them.

References

  1. Kermani F. (2004). Unlocking Asia's Pharmaceutical Potential
  2. Kim Y (2001). International Market Insight
  3. An overview of the Korean pharmaceutical industry and its R&D activities. Korea Drug Research Association (KDRA)
  4. Kermani F & Van den Haak M (2002). Drug development 2001. CMR International
  5. Alksne L. (2003). Balofloxacin Choongwae. Current Opinions in Investigational Drugs. 2003 Feb; 4(2):224-9.
  6. Korea Drug Research Association (KDRA)


Dr Faiz Kermani has several years experience in both academia and the pharmaceutical industry. He has worked in pharmaceutical R&D, pricing and reimbursement, marketing and medical communications. He holds a PhD in Immunopharmacology from St. Thomas’ Hospital, London and a First Class Honours degree in Pharmacology with Toxicology from King’s College, London. He has written extensively on international healthcare issues, and is on the editorial board of a number of publications. In March 2006, he was a delegate on the UK Government’s Trade and Investment Biotech Scoping Mission to China and was a speaker at the subsequent presentation.

You can contact Dr Kermani via jobs@leaddiscovery.co.uk

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