Cancer deaths in Korea
December 2011
by Lloyd Dunlap  |  Email the author


SEOUL, South Korea—One of the most common and serious infectious diseases, hepatitis B—which accounts for a staggering 38 percent of all cancer deaths in Korea—is to be targeted in a new collaborative venture between the translational research institute, Institut Pasteur Korea (IP-K), and Sanofi-Aventis Korea. The goal is to develop and validate a high-throughput assay to screen IP-K's chemical libraries for novel compounds that can be developed as new drugs.  
Under the terms of the agreement, Sanofi will fund the initial phase of the project that is anticipated to last for a year, after which IP-K and Sanofi will jointly determine which compounds should be brought forward for optimization and further development. The collaboration was made possible by the Global Alliance Project framework, which Sanofi-Aventis Korea launched with Korean trade and health industry development groups, KOTRA and KHIDI, in June 2009.  
Despite the availability of medicines and a vaccine, IP-K estimates that about 5 percent of the global population, or about 350 million people worldwide, are chronic carriers of the hepatitis B virus (HBV). As much as 8 percent of the population in some Asian countries, including Korea and China, are at risk of progressing onto liver cirrhosis and cancer. In a 10-year prospective cohort study of liver cancer in Korea involving 3,807 individuals who died from liver cancer during the period, researchers found that the population that was positive for hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) was 24.3 times (males) and 54.4 times (females) more likely to progress to cancer than individuals whose status was negative. The study also evaluated cigarette smoking and heavy alcohol consumption and found these factors to be associated with increased risk of mortality from hepatocellular carcinoma but at a much lower relative risk of from 1.1 to 1.5. The risk factors did not interact synergistically, the authors reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2004.
Perhaps coincidentally, the independent nonprofit institute IP-K was founded in April 2004 with a strategic focus on enabling technologies and therapeutic development in disease models pertaining to public health. IP-K has developed "a novel research platform that combines chemical genomics with high-content visual screening by bringing together the latest advances in biology, technology and chemistry. The application of the platform technology in the fields of infectious disease and chronic illness allows basic science to be extended to drug discovery. In turn, the application of functional genomics—using global siRNA—allows further elucidation of the basic molecular and genetic underpinnings of disease," states the institute 's media release announcing the Sanofi alliance.  
The joint research effort sprang from the laboratory of Dr. Wang-Shik Ryu of the Department of Biochemistry at Yonsei University in Seoul. The study cited above came out of the graduate school of public health at Yonsei U.  
"This new research collaboration provides a textbook example of modern drug discovery in action," says Dr. Marc Windisch, who will lead the team at IP-K. "It brings promising basic research from an academic laboratory into the high-throughput translational research environment at IP-K."  
IP-K researchers are developing cellular models to identify inhibitors that target a specific step in the viral life cycle—the assembly of the HBV capsid. This approach is aimed at preventing the release of infectious virus particles into the bloodstream, thereby reducing the viral load in patients. Once perfected, the IP-K cellular models will be used to comprehensively screen the institute's compound libraries for novel antiviral interventions. Currently, most available HBV drugs inhibit reverse transcription, the process by which the virus RNA is transcribed into DNA for replication. However, new therapies are needed to compensate for the emerging resistance of the virus to these drugs.  
Once promising small molecules have been identified, Sanofi will take the leads through optimization, development and commercialization.
"Our open-innovation strategy is to elucidate Asian-specific diseases and to collaborate with leading institutions," said Frank Jiang, vice president and head of TSU Asia Pacific R&D at Sanofi. "The translational capabilities of IP-K will facilitate the discovery of drugs based on novel mechanisms to combat HBV."
Code: E121106

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