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START win is big step for San Antonio’s biotech push
January 22, 2010
Pharma giants pick San Antonio cancer center for drug testing

by W. Scott Bailey, San Antonio Business Journal

When competing drug companies Merck & Co. Inc. and AstraZeneca announced in June their plan to participate in what has been characterized as a “pioneering collaboration” to research a novel combination anticancer regimen, it was hailed by some as a landmark moment in the ongoing fight against cancer.

Their more recent decision to select the South Texas Accelerated Research Therapeutics (or START) Center for Cancer Care as the site where the first Phase I clinical trials for the drug combination will be conducted has been heralded by San Antonio biotech leaders as a major score for the Alamo City.

Dr. Anthony Tolcher is the clinical director for START. He is also principal investigator for the Phase I clinical trial involving Merck and AstraZeneca and characterizes the unique collaboration between the two companies as a ground-breaking accomplishment.

“There are many facets as to why this is significant,” says Tolcher about the collaboration. “This is something that has never been done before.

“To pull this off,” he adds, “you had to bring together two otherwise competing companies. To be able to muster the strengths of these two companies is not insubstantial.”

Tolcher says this is a huge opportunity and accomplishment for San Antonio, too.

“This is a major step forward, a promising step forward,” he insists. “It re-establishes the fact that San Antonio is the place to go for Phase I studies, that we are a destination for innovative therapies.”

Cutting edge

BioMed SA President Ann Stevens says the decision by Merck and AstraZeneca to select San Antonio and START for the Phase I clinical trial will command far-reaching attention.

“This is validation of San Antonio’s continuing role in cutting-edge cancer research,” she says.

“The START Center’s selection to participate in this ground-breaking study underscores the fact that cancer research and development is one of the core competencies of San Antonio’s biomedical research community,” Stevens adds.

The competition among entities hoping to conduct the Phase I trials for the Merck-AstraZeneca collaboration was intense.

“There were a lot of people who were trying to get this study,” Tolcher says. “Amongst the universe of Phase I centers, the fact that (Merck and AstraZeneca) chose us, in many respects it speaks to the success of START.”

Under the terms of their agreement, AstraZeneca and Merck will work together to evaluate co-administration of the multiple compounds in a Phase I clinical trial for the treatment of solid cancer tumors.

The two companies will share development costs and following the Phase I trial, the companies will consider opportunities for further clinical development.

“This collaboration brings together two leading companies with a wealth of expertise in oncology,” says Alan Barge, vice president and head of oncology at AstraZeneca. “Through this agreement (with Merck) we are well-positioned to implement a detailed and timely evaluation of the therapeutic potential of this novel combination, with the aim of bringing this potentially effective regimen to patients as rapidly as possible.”

Dr. Li Yan, director of clinical research for Merck, says, “Phase I clinical trials of investigational cancer drugs form the foundation for the drug development process. START has established a talented multi-disciplinary team with the expertise and resources to collect high-quality, early-stage data that is critical to developing new cancer treatments and improving patients’ lives.”

Waste of energy

While START is gaining new opportunities via the drug industry, it is also attracting international attention.

Tolcher says START is currently working with a group of drug discovery experts and venture capitalists from China, for example.

“They are coming to us for advice,” Tolcher says. “They wanted to take a look at how we do things here.”

START is still a relatively young organization.

“It takes a little while to ramp up,” Tolcher says. “But this opportunity, on top of all our other Phase I studies, speaks greatly about the vision that all of us are trying to achieve here.”

Will that opportunity help move San Antonio closer to becoming one of the nation’s top biotech centers?

“It’s one of many that will have to happen,” Tolcher says. “But it’s an important one.

“You need to have a critical mass of expertise,” he adds. “We are starting to get to that critical mass. It is all of the players in this city that will ultimately make San Antonio successful in the world of biotechnology.”

Stevens says she believes that the “emergence of the START Center and its global expansion program,” coupled with other important San Antonio assets and achievements, will help “pave the way” for additional opportunities and recognition for the city and its biotech industry.

Tolcher says San Antonio needs to find and perfect its niche in that industry.

“We don’t have to emulate other places. We don’t have to be the biggest in the biotech world,” he says. “That’s a waste of energy. Our strategy as a city should be to focus on what we do really well and to be the best at that.”

Tolcher believes that niche for San Antonio is world-class oncology.

“Oncology is without geographic borders,” he says. “There is a global effort to cure cancer and what we are doing in San Antonio is meaningful — here and everywhere else in the world.”

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