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Vol 20, No. 04, April 2016   |   Issue PDF view/purchase
ASLAN — Transforming the Treatment for Rare Tumour Types in Asia
ASLAN Pharmaceuticals is a biotechnology company focused on developing a portfolio of immuno-oncology agents and targeted therapies. Led by highly experienced management team with global pharmaceutical expertise, ASLAN has offices across Singapore, Taiwan and Australia, working on the clinical development programmes for Asia prevalent tumour types such as gastric cancer, liver cancer (cholangiocarcinoma and hepatocellular carcinoma), and breast cancer.

Featuring Dr. Carl Firth Founder and Chief Executive Officer of ASLAN

Dr Carl Firth is Founder and CEO of ASLAN Pharmaceuticals, a biotech company with headquarters in Singapore and offices in Taiwan, China and Australia, that is developing novel medicines for global markets in oncology and inflammation. Previously, he was Head of Asia Healthcare at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, supporting public and private financing of healthcare companies across the region and advising on M&A transactions.

Prior to joining the banking industry, he worked for AstraZeneca for 10 years in various commercial and R&D roles, including Regional Business Development Director AsiaPac and Director of New Product Development China.

Carl was chosen as one of Scrip’s top 10 pharmaceutical leaders alongside notable industry veterans such as Ken Frazier, CEO of Merck, and Andrew Witty, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline.

Carl holds a PhD from Cambridge University in Molecular Biology (Trinity College), an Executive MBA from London Business School and a degree in Molecular Biology from Cambridge University. Carl is an Independent Director for Hong Kong listed Uni-Bio Sciences and Singapore’s Exploit Technologies, and is also Adjunct Professor at Duke-NUS Medical School.

1. ASLAN is a biotech company focused on immune-oncology agents that target rare tumour types. Could you share more about ASLAN’s missions, its objectives and its focus area?

Our primary goal is to transform the way cancer is being treated, through immuno-oncology and other targeted therapies. Our focus is on delivering effective therapies to cancers that are more prevalent in Asia but still represent areas of significant unmet clinical need in the west. For many of these cancers, treatments are still inadequate in creating positive outcomes. We believe that the best place to develop these therapies are in Asia, where the patients are located and the world’s experts are.

There is a huge unmet need in these tumour types: in cholangiocarcinoma there are no approved therapies; in gastric cancer, besides chemotherapy, there is only one approved therapy in first line, and one in second line.

2. What sparked the idea of starting up this company? How did this come about?

We recognised 6 years ago that there were increasing numbers of clinical centres in Asia that were able to run high quality studies. We wanted to bring about fundamental changes in the way today’s most serious illnesses are treated and to develop paradigm changing therapies for Asia prevalent tumour types.

My team and I had all worked in big pharma, and were aware of the limitations of working in such an environment. Many of these tumour types had historically been ignored in favour of ‘western’ cancers like lung cancer, breast cancer and colorectal. We all felt that a small, agile organisation would be the best place to develop therapies for these Asia prevalent tumour types.

3. Could you talk more about ASLAN001 which has recently received its Orphan Drug status?

Varlitinib (ASLAN001) is a small molecule pan-HER inhibitor, which we originally in-licensed from Array BioPharma. ASLAN has the global rights to all indications. We have seen positive clinical data both as monotherapy and in combination with chemotherapy in several difficult-to-treat tumours, including cholangiocarcinoma, gastric cancer, breast cancer and colorectal cancer.

These diseases are highly prevalent in Asia. Gastric cancer, for example, is one of the top killers in the region. Varlitinib is currently in phase 2 for 4 tumour types.

Varlitinib was awarded Orphan Drug Designation by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2015 for cholangiocarcinoma, which does not currently have any approved therapies. The FDA awards Orphan Drug Designation to advance the evaluation and development of drugs and products that demonstrate promise for the diagnosis and/or treatment of rare diseases or conditions. This is a great endorsement of our scientific work and the potential of varlitinib. The disease affects only 5,000 patients per year in the United States, but the incidence rate is 10 times higher in Asia, with 130,000 patients in the region. South Korea alone has 4,000 patients a year, in China it is the number 8 tumour type. The award will also provide ASLAN certain incentives including extended marketing exclusivity to develop varlitinib in cholangiocarcinoma.

In 2015, Hyundai Pharmaceuticals acquired the rights to develop and commercialise the drug for the South Korean market. This was our first out-licensing agreement and we have structured it so that we retain co-marketing rights to varlitinib in South Korea.

4. Is ASLAN focusing only on Asian markets? Do you plan to branch out globally? What are the future plans and potential development of ASLAN?

We have established offices in Taiwan, China, and Australia, in addition to our corporate headquarters in Singapore. We have a presence in South Korea through our agreement with Hyundai Pharmaceutical, a South Korean pharmaceutical company, and are running studies in a variety of other countries.

As we continue to grow, we are looking for opportunities to build our global presence.

Our focus continues to be on developing new treatments for Asia-prevalent diseases. For the majority of our assets, we will retain global rights, and will evaluate our commercialisation plans and territories on a case-by-case basis.

5. What contributions can ASLAN make to the biotechnological field?

I believe that ASLAN demonstrates how a lean and agile company can contribute innovative and creative thinking as well as efficient responsiveness to drug development as opposed to traditional big pharma companies that are typically constrained when making decisions. We hope that we can change the way drugs can be developed globally by leveraging on speedier processes and efficiency in Asia, and the innovation that is emerging from centres such as Taiwan, Korea and Singapore. Ultimately, we hope to deliver medicines that can effectively treat these cancers.

Featuring Sir David Lane Chairman of ASLAN's Scientific Advisory Board

Professor Sir David Lane was appointed Chairman of ASLAN Pharmaceutical’s Scientific Advisory Board in January 2016.

Professor Lane is concurrently the Chief Scientist of Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), as well as, the Scientific Director of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research. Professor Lane is credited with the landmark discovery of the p53 protein, which functions as a vitally important tumor suppressor involved in preventing cancer. He refers to the protein as the “guardian of the genome” for its role in controlling tumor growth. The p53 is mutated or faulty in 50 percent of human cancers. Professor Lane’s current laboratory investigations focus on controlling p53 and identifying targets for developing new cancer therapies that could restore normal function.

Professor Lane has directed scientific programs at Imperial College, ICRF Laboratories at Clare Hall and helped to establish the Cancer Research Campaign (CRC) laboratories at the University of Dundee in Dundee, Scotland. With support from the University of Dundee and CRC, he founded Cyclacel Pharmaceuticals where he helped to identify several oncology drug candidates currently under clinical development. While carrying out his responsibilities at A*Star, Professor Lane also served as Cancer Research UK’s first Chief Scientist.

His contributions to cancer research have been widely recognized. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000 and most recently received the 2012 Cancer Research UK Lifetime Achievement Prize. Professor Lane is a member of European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) and a Fellow of the Royal Society, the UK’s premier scientific academy. He is the author or co-author of more than 350 publications in international peer-reviewed journals.

Professor Lane earned his PhD degree in immunology from the University College in London. He began his post-doctoral research in the laboratories of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.

1. What is your role in ASLAN? What are the responsibilities that come with it?

My role as Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board is focused on providing a sounding board for the management team in their scientific strategy. ASLAN is a great example of an agile biotech company that has creativity and applies innovative thinking to drug discovery and development, and I am excited to explore any new areas, opportunities and indications with the team.

2. How do you juggle your work for your different designations in research institutions and pharmaceutical companies such as A*STAR, Chugai and ASLAN?

Well I have to be careful to compartmentalise my efforts; but with my advisory role at ASLAN, I focus on interacting with the management team to help them bring to bear the latest methods and ideas in drug development to their clinical programmes. As an example, we recently discussed a new Mass Spectroscopy based method for measuring drug target interactions that could speed clinical development.

3. What led to the great discovery of the p53 tumour suppressor protein?

The key turned out to be making great antibody reagents and then using them to study in detail how some viruses like HPV cause cancer. We found that these so called DNA viruses are able to make proteins that bound and targeted human cell's p53 protein, and later found that these interactions blocked p53 function. Years later, it was discovered that p53’s function could also be blocked by mutation and that in fact this happened in more than half of all human cancers in the world. I named p53 “the guardian of the genome” as it works to suppress cancer by protecting our DNA genome from damage.

4. What is the latest drug or treatment development related to immune-oncology?

This is such a hot field at the moment with many new developments in the pipeline. I would highlight cell engineering therapies such as CAR T cells, which are becoming very sophisticated along with drugs that block the enzymes produced by tumours to switch of T cell signalling such as the IDO inhibitors.

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