To China For a U.S. Cancer Drug?

Deborah Weatherby-Falk of Vancouver is treated by a Chinese nurse.
Deborah Weatherby-Falk of Vancouver is treated by a Chinese nurse. "I understand the criticisms," Weatherby-Falk said. "I came despite them." At right, Richard Weissenborn checks a clear PET scan from January, after treatment in Beijing with the drug Gendicine; later, his cancer returned. (Photos By Ariana Eunjung Cha -- The Washington Post)
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 5, 2007

BEIJING -- Every few days, Houston businessman Richard Weissenborn receives injections of a radical new cancer drug at a hospital here.

The treatment aims to check his head and neck cancers by replacing mutant genes with good copies. The treatment is still experimental in the United States, but in China, it was approved for marketing after a few years of testing.

The Chinese scientists behind the drug, Gendicine, see it as a milestone in the country's efforts to catch up with the West, proof that China can develop some of the world's most advanced medicine.

But a company in the United States says the Chinese drug is basically stolen property, rushed to market with inadequate testing and in violation of patent rights.

The dispute is the latest clash between the two countries in the broad field known as intellectual property. China in recent decades has prospered largely because of a talent for copying. The country duplicates goods others created but figures out how to make them more cheaply.

For years, that tactic focused on items like watches, purses and DVDs. But increasingly, China is moving up the value chain, copying such high-value goods and services as architectural techniques, cars and drugs.

The dispute over the gene-therapy drug is especially revealing in that scientific innovation is a pillar of American business. If other countries can learn to beat the United States to market with drugs and other technologically advanced goods, that could spell economic trouble in America.

According to Peng Zhaohui, founder of SiBiono GeneTech, which created the gene-therapy cancer drug and put it on the market in the breakneck span of seven years, the treatment is the latest accomplishment of Chinese genetic engineering, built on information publicly available in medical literature.

American scientists tell a different story.

David Nance, chief executive of Introgen Therapeutics of Austin, said SiBiono's drug is the same one that he and an American colleague developed 15 years ago. He said that while Introgen's drug was making its way past U.S. research hurdles, SiBiono stole the technology and rushed it to market, thereby infringing on Introgen's patents.

Introgen says it holds 258 worldwide patents, four of them in China. No lawsuit has been filed. Nance declined to comment about specific patents or to describe the company's Chinese patent position in detail, citing possible future litigation.

Peng, a former University of California at Los Angeles medical researcher, denies that his company is infringing on any patents held by Nance's company.

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