GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has made a big investment in China, betting that the future of drug development will be led by that country.
In his keynote address, "From ‘Made in China’ to ‘Discovered in China,’" at the China Trials 2008 Global Clinical Development Summit in Shanghai, Perry Nisen, M.D., Ph.D., senior vice president, Cancer Research at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), emphasized the importance of China with regard to GSK’s global strategy. Nisen said that if GSK’s China initiative is not successful, “it is going to hurt the company” because it has invested so much there. “Our decision was that we really wanted to do it from the beginning to the end.”
While describing GSK’s globalization priorities—talent, innovation/technology, patients, market access and cost—Nisen remarked more than once that he was impressed by the “magnitude of the slope of change” in China. He specifically noted the dramatic increase in the talent pool for R&D as well as the “sea turtle” phenomenon, a reference to Ph.D. students who study abroad and then return to China to become investigators. Nisen said one of the reasons that convinced GSK to invest in China was that the number of Ph.D.s in China was rising at a much faster rate than in the U.S. and other countries.
With the increase in talent, Nisen commented that there were examples of research institutes that were “starting to rival research institutes in the U.S. and Western Europe.”
GSK established an end-to-end fully integrated R&D center for the purpose of developing novel medicines for global registration a year and a half ago. “Unless we established an end-to-end unit, how would we attract talent within China, how would we attract talent from other parts of the world and from other parts of GSK?”
GSK already has 200 staff there. The R&D center provides GSK with a strategic presence in Asia. “It feels like a biotech,” said Nisen, adding, “There is an intense feel of excited, passionate scientists.”
Several speakers at the conference made the point that drug development in China is changing so rapidly, it’s hard to keep up.
GSK is not the only Big Pharma to set up an R&D center in China. It followed Roche, Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Novartis. Eli Lilly and Company also set up an R&D center around the same time.
Many challenges to having a smooth R&D process in China remain, however. They are: the inability to send human material outside the country, long regulatory approval timelines, incomplete intellectual property protection, world economic slowdown, language and culture.
However, GSK’s investment illustrates the positive outlook for China’s future. “There is every aspect of R&D in China,” Nisen said. “Some elements are reasonably mature and others are sophisticated at a global level.” He also stressed that what is not a core capability in China today, one could expect to be in future.