Terra Sigillata

Aurora kinase inhibitors for Jesus

As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (sub req’d, but I’ll quote extensively), Stacy Meichtry wrote on an Italian Roman Catholic religious order whose cancer research laboratory, owned formerly by Pfizer, has recently entered partnerships with this and other major international pharmaceutical companies.

But two years ago, Father Decaminada, a priest and chief financial officer of the Roman Catholic religious order Congregation of the Children of the Immaculate Conception, engineered the acquisition from Pfizer Inc. of a leading Italian biotechnology lab outside Milan specializing in cancer-drug research. The Congregation has rechristened the lab Nerviano Medical Science, or NMS, and has signed drug-development deals totaling more than $400 million with Pfizer and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.

Earlier this month, NMS took an important step toward developing a commercially viable drug when it began Phase II trials on around 300 people for its top drug candidate — an Aurora inhibitor, a molecule that targets the reproductive mechanisms of cancer cells. The Aurora inhibitor recently became the first of its kind to complete Phase I clinical testing.

The NMS is the manifestation of decades of missionary work run by the Congregation in underserved areas of Albania, Brazil, and Nigeria. The hope is that by becoming a Pharma player, profits and licensing fees will help support less financially-profitable research to discover cures for diseases that afflict underdeveloped areas, such as tuberculosis and malaria.

In addition, if big drug companies are interested in its cancer products, the Congregation hopes it can persuade them to adopt more ethical practices in how those drugs are tested, marketed and priced.

“Without a doubt we are serious about entering the market and playing by its rules. At the same time we have the will and the obligation to discuss ethics with even the industry’s biggest players,” Father Decaminada says.

Of course, one might expect a bit of a clash of cultures, although some facets of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly in the US, are no strangers to profiteering,

A successful cancer-fighting drug could force a clash between NMS’s two competing goals of profitability and ethical behavior. Cancer inhibitors currently on the U.S. market rank among the drug industry’s most expensive products. As the patent owners of a potential cancer drug, NMS is aware that one of its options could be to license the discovery to a major pharmaceutical firm for developed markets while retaining distribution rights for the developing world. “Whoever owns the patent has all the power,” says Mr. Schondelmeyer.

However, Father Decaminada concedes that even if the drugs NMS is developing turn out to be successful, the Congregation knows that it has to play by market rules as it tries to push the pharmaceutical industry. “We are not going to sit down at the table and deliver the Ten Commandments,” he says. “It’s a matter of finding common ground.”