HONG KONG Sanofi-Aventis plans to begin testing a novel compound that is designed to starve liver cancer to death in a phase one human clinical trial in China and possibly South Korea in 2013.
The compound, called slit-trap, was developed by its Chinese collaborator, Shanghai Institutes of Biological Sciences, and will soon be ready for a "first-in-man" trial.
"It is now in pre-clinical (stage) and is going into clinic early next year," said chief executive officer Christopher Viehbacher in an interview in Hong Kong.
The personalized therapy is tailored for a certain type of liver cancer patients who have high levels of a protein called slit, which nourishes the tumor and helps it spread to other parts of the body.
"If you block slit, you essentially starve the cancer to death," said Frank Jiang, Sanofi-Aventis vice-president and head of research and development in the Asia Pacific.
The company is working on ways to identify such patients who can best respond to this therapy, he said.
Though rare in the west, liver cancer is serious in Asia due to the prevalence of hepatitis B infection, which is as high as 10 percent in China's population of 1.3 billion people.
Chronic hepatitis B infection can result in liver cirrhosis and liver cancer later in life.
The French drugmaker is uncertain what percentage of liver cancer patients in China may respond to the therapy.
"But in China, even 10 percent of liver cancer patients would be an incredible number," Jiang said.
In China, there are about 350,000 new liver cancer cases each year, or half of the world's total.
China, one of Sanofi's biggest emerging markets, accounts for less than 5 percent of its global sales. But it is growing at a much faster pace than the company's other emerging markets.
"Certainly, in five years time, you will expect China probably will be our number one emerging market," Viehbacher said. "A lot more of the growth in China has been organic."
(Reporting by Tan Ee Lyn and Donny Kwok; Editing by Robert Birsel)