SINGAPORE (Aug 27): As cancer rates rise, particularly in Asia, the fight to contain it becomes all the more urgent, yet treatment drugs are not always available, not for lack of advances in scientific research, either. “High-potential oncology drugs get neglected for reasons [that have] nothing to do with science but more to do with corporate limitations of the healthcare industry,” says Vishal Doshi, CEO of biomedical start-up AUM Biosciences in an interview with The Edge Singapore. AUM Biosciences is looking to change that. “We feel that it is the need of the hour,” says Doshi.

He points out that across the world, the cost of treating cancer is a lot higher than it is for any other disease. “It is actually impacting the availability and affordability of the drugs,” says Doshi, who started his career at US drug development services company PharmaNet Development Group.

AUM Biosciences is less than a year old, and has recorded barely any revenue, much less earnings. Yet, Doshi has raised $2 million in seed funding from investors happy to make an early bet.

With these funds, AUM Biosciences is now negotiating with several leading research institutions and biotech companies to buy over their cancer-related assets. These include potential treatments for cancer of the neck, head, prostate and colon. Doshi targets to buy three of such assets by 1Q2019. He will then turn to investors for additional funding, with the aim of building a pipeline of five assets by 2020. One big area of growth that Doshi is eyeing is the market for cancer drugs in Asia, which he believes is underserved. Last year, 55 oncology drugs were approved for sale globally, but less than 20% of them were available in emerging markets, including Asia.

According to the World Health Organization, low-income countries are expected to see an increase of more than 80% in new cases of cancer between 2008 and 2030. That is double the rate expected in high-income countries. Furthermore, by 2030, low- and middle-income countries will see between 10 million and 11 million new cases of cancer diagnosed per year. The sheer market potential is clearly a driver.

According to an outlook by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, the worldwide market for cancer drugs is estimated to grow at between 7.5% and 10.5% annually to exceed US$150 billion ($205 billion) in value by 2020. It typically takes more than a decade for drugs to be developed from scratch, undergo clinical trials and be approved for sale. Many projects start, but few reach the finishing line. Various drug industry observers, including the Boston Consulting Group, Deloitte and McKinsey, have studied the process at various points in time, and reached the same conclusion: Drug development is not making money for pharmaceutical companies.

Still, while many drug trials end nowhere, not all are junk. In fact, Doshi believes there is significant intellectual property value that can be harvested from these half-finished products that are left languishing on lab shelves for strategic and financial reasons.

This is where AUM Biosciences comes in. It surveys the field, selects what is available, and then buys over the assets with potential. It then works with other pharmaceutical companies to develop these assets into commercially viable products.

So, what can AUM Biosciences do differently from Big Pharma?

The traditional, big pharmaceutical companies concentrate their armies of scientists on coming up with so-called “blockbuster” drugs, which is industry parlance for those that treat the most common conditions and can generate revenue of more than US$1 billion each. These also go through years of rigorous clinical trials. The current list is topped by Lipitor, developed by Pfizer to treat high cholesterol; Humira, developed by AbbVie to treat arthritis; and Advair, developed by GlaxoSmith- Kline to treat asthma.

By contrast, AUM Biosciences is out to look for “niche busters”. It focuses on three related aspects of the process, which, when put together, will hopefully create the desired outcome more efficiently.

First, the pharmaceutical companies usually develop drugs with two main different types of make-up: biological, and chemical. The biological- based drugs, commonly known as biologics, are essentially made up of living cells, and while more complicated and expensive to create, are said to be more effective for certain diseases. AUM Biosciences, on the other hand, focuses on the so-called chemical-based, small-molecule drugs, which are easier and less expensive to produce. The process can be quicker, too.

Next, AUM Biosciences tries to adopt the precision medicine concept. Taken to the extreme, it is the development of a fully customised drug to treat an individual patient for a specific ailment. At the more practical level, precision medicine can be applied to groups of patients with similar disease characteristics.

Now, precision medicine cannot be implemented without better and more accurate data. Hence, the third component of AUM Bio sciences’ business model is to collect and make better sense of the vast trove of medical data available. Much of this is collected during the long and tedious clinical trial stages. All sorts of permutations can be generated by the different patients reacting differently to assorted drugs at various stages. Better analysis of the data collected can help researchers improve the way drug trials are designed, says Doshi.

For now, he is focused on picking the right assets to develop. He says there is a stringent due diligence process in place. The average process takes six to eight weeks, during which time AUM Biosciences will assess the strength of the intellectual property — how much competition it can expect to face or whether it will be undermined by generics. Of the various assets the company has reviewed thus far, Doshi is keen on less than 10% of them.

Further, even if AUM Biosciences starts working on any of the assets it has picked up, there is still the “early kill” option if things do not work out, Doshi says. The project will be terminated and the resources put to better use elsewhere. “The key value of our company is science,” Doshi says. “If there is science, then that is how it is going to drive investor [interest] and patient [benefits].”