Zevalin, a remarkable but underutilized radio-immunotherapy that successfully treats some of the most common types of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, including the kind that I've personally been battling for the last 19 years, is now available for patients at Hong Kong Sanatorium & Hospital, one of the leading private hospitals in Hong Kong known for its high quality of patient care.
Spectrum Pharmaceuticals, an American biotech company that owns and manufactures Zevalin, granted the exclusive rights to the drug in China to CASI Pharmaceuticals, an American company whose primary focus is China's unmet needs in cancer and other illnesses, and CASI's local partner, Global Medical Solutions Hong Kong Limited.
"We are delighted to see our anticancer drugs developed and marketed in greater China through CASI, a NASDAQ-listed company focused on China," says Dr. Rajesh Shrotriya, Spectrum's CEO and chairman.
“We are very pleased that we can now provide Zevalin in Hong Kong hospitals and help address the unmet medical needs there," says Dr. Rong Chen, CASI’s chief medical officer, who notes that eventually the treatment will be available in other areas of greater China.
Zevalin, which was approved in the United States for the treatment of low-grade or follicular B-cell non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL), has significantly higher complete response rates than Rituxan, the better known blockbuster lymphoma drug. But for reasons that have nothing to do with how well Zevalin works on patients, most American lymphoma patients aren't even aware of this treatment. And of course Zevalin was virtually unknown in China, until now.
This new US-China partnership will undoubtedly increase global awareness of this lifesaving treatment, and of lymphoma in general. It could even lead to a curious and first-of-its-kind global healthcare dichotomy that could result in the following headline: More cancer patients in China than America being treated with a lifesaving drug made in the USA!
But most importantly, this historic agreement will save lives. It isn't widely known, but lymphoma is increasing in China at an alarming rate. A white paper from the Beijing Municipal Health Bureau three years ago reportedly showed that the population of lymphoma patients in Beijing more than doubled from 2001 to 2010. Dr Zhu Jun, director of the Beijing Cancer Hospital's lymphoma department, told the South China Morning Post that the afflicted population of lymphoma patients is rising by more than 6 per cent each year.
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Chen Wanqing, Deputy Director of China's National Cancer Prevention and Control Research Office, told Beijing Review that in the next 10 years, the number of cancer patients will continue to rise in China and by 2020 an estimated 6.6 million people will be diagnosed with cancer each year. But unlike lung cancer and various other cancers, Zhu told the South China Morning Post, lymphoma is still a type of cancer with which most oncologists in China are just not very familiar.
The Keys to This US-China Partnership's Success
The key to the success of CASI's new venture in China is how effectively the company communicates with China's governmental agencies, oncology communities and, most importantly, lymphoma patients themselves. While we are seeing exciting new partnerships like this one and new lymphoma clinical trial agreements between China drug companies like Innovent and Chipscreen and companies from the United States and Europe, word of all this positive activity in the lymphoma space has for the most part not yet reached the Chinese people, who are all-too familiar with lung cancer, but unfamiliar with lymphoma. It's one thing to bring your new treatment to China. It's quite another to convince China's cancer patients and their families to embrace something of which they are not aware.
There is very little patient advocacy in China. There is a dedicated woman in Hong Kong named Sally Lo who is doing tremendous things in support of Hong Kong's cancer patient population. But there are very few people doing what she is doing throughout greater China. And even Lo has no specific program for lymphoma.
That's why we've reached out to China's lymphoma patient population directly with our apolitical gesture of friendship. Chinese people are so brilliant and kind, but they do not like to be told what to do. Our project is my way of gently helping them navigate their own way through the lymphoma maze that I've traversed for two decades. I just want to help with some basic information about the disease and some inspiration.
It's vitally important to communicate the message directly and carefully to China's people that lymphoma is not a death sentence, that it is treatable and beatable, and that Zevalin is just one of many drugs that can treat this disease. This is what drug companies sometimes essentially lack: the human touch. They're saving lives, but they could be saving so many more if they more effectively marketed their products and more sensitively communicated with the patient population.
The Real Hero in This Story
|Dr. Rajesh Shrotriya, CEO & Chairman of Spectrum|
As those of you who've read my work already know, radio-immunotherapy (RIT) saved my life in a clinical trial. I wrote about this in Newsweek, and in Hope Begins in the Dark, my first book on lymphoma survivors. But the trial wasn't for Zevalin, it was for the "other" RIT for lymphoma: Bexxar, which saved my life and gave me a very long remission.
Both Zevalin and Bexxar are outstanding treatments for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. But as I reported for the International Business Times, Bexxar was unceremoniously scrapped by GlaxoSmithKline last year. Bexxar was saving lives but apparently it just wasn't making Glaxo enough money.
When Glaxo dumped Bexxar, Shrotriya told me reassuringly that he was committed to keeping Zevalin on the market. I was almost speechless with gratitude. My admiration for Raj has been a constant throughout my many years as an advocate for cancer patients. Even if you've not heard of him, Shrotriya is a quiet champion in the lymphoma community. Zevalin's arrival in China never would have happened if not for Raj's commitment. And hopefully this is only the beginning in terms of helping China's cancer patients.
Raj said last fall that China's pharmaceutical market is "growing at a rapid pace and is already approaching second place to only the United States in the world. The greater China drug market for anticancer drugs is projected to become the world's largest in the next decade, and CASI has the opportunity to take a leading position to address these significant unmet medical needs."
Ken Ren, CASI's CEO, said recently that although Hong Kong is a relatively small market, it is "strategically important" and will enable CASI to gain clinical knowledge and experience for Zevalin in a Chinese patient population, "which we believe will have positive impact in market penetration when Zevalin is approved and becomes available in our greater China markets.”
My Message to China's Lymphoma Patients
My job as a journalist and global lymphoma patient advocate is simply to tell cancer patients about all their treatment options, both pharma-based and holistic, including of course Traditional Chinese Medicine, and to provide some tools to patients and their families that help them cope with a cancer diagnosis, which of course can be devastating.
Many of China's lymphoma patients still unfortunately think that a lymphoma diagnosis means certain death. I want to help spread the word that this is not true. This cancer is treatable and beatable. I want to help China's cancer patients not only regain the lives they had before they were diagnosed, but see their lives actually improve.
Lymphoma is scary, but having it has made me a better writer, a better husband and father, a better person. It has brought me moments of fear but also moments of joy. And it has inspired me to help others get through what I've already been through. Remember: Hope begins in the dark!