Pharma pioneer gives returnees a shot in the arm
Medical researcher Ding Lieming returned to China in 2002 after 10 years studying and working in the United States. Having earned a degree in medicine at the University of Arkansas, Ding returned and founded Zhejiang Betta Pharmaceutical Co in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province.
"I could have lived a middle-class life if I had stayed (in the US), but I could not fulfill my dream to innovate and start my own business," he said. "In China, I can turn my research results into industrial products, but if I stayed overseas, I might have to sell the patent or research results to big pharmaceutical firms.
"I was raised with China's opening-up, received a higher education, studied abroad and returned to China to start a business."
He said he has enjoyed all the benefits provided by the opening-up policy, and has devoted himself to researching new drugs.
In 2011, Ding and his team developed icotinib hydrochloride, also known as Conmana, the first targeted anticancer drug made in China.
Lancet Oncology, a leading medical research journal, commented that the treatment "has created the new era of China's R&D of anticancer drugs".
"There were many ups and downs ... but Chinese people really need these medicines. Foreign companies had a long-term monopoly on expensive imported medicines in the Chinese pharmaceutical market, which meant many people could not afford the pills," Ding said.
He referred to Dying to Survive, a recent Chinese box-office hit movie about a man who smuggled cheap versions of leukemia medication from India for resale to patients in China.
Public discussion heated up after the movie's release, and triggered a written instruction from the central government that highlighted the urgent need to reduce drug prices and ensure adequate supplies. Chinese people need affordable medicines, Ding said.
The price of Conmana is about 60 to 70 percent that of similar medicines that are imported.
"There were concerns within the company that if we set the price lower than that of imported medicines, patients may misunderstand and think Conmana is inferior to imported medicines," Ding said.
"But our target is to allow more patients to use and be able to afford the medicine. When the market grows big enough, we will gain good returns and our company will maintain sustainable development."
One Conmana tablet sells for about 67 yuan ($10), and according to the instructions patients need to take three pills a day, meaning they will have to spend about 6,000 yuan on the treatment every month.
So far, about 160,000 patients have used Conmana. To further reduce the cost, Ding led a program to distribute free pills to patients who had used the drug for six months and still found the medication effective.
As a "pioneer" among overseas returnees, Ding said modern China provides a great range of opportunities. "China is increasingly valuing talent. In 2002, when I returned, I received funding of about 200,000 yuan, but now the money runs to millions and facilities are improving," he said.
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