Published date: 04-Feb-2021
Source: The Daily Star

Development of oncology drugs in Bangladesh: A success story

Source: The Daily Star

Just 12 years ago, Bangladesh was a 100 percent importer of oncology drugs. Today, it is an exporter that also meets local needs. This was possible due to the efforts of local pharmaceutical companies, their far-sighted vision and the trust patients have in local products.

In the past 10 years, pharmaceutical companies such as Beacon, Eskayef, Renata, Incepta, Healthcare, and Techno Pharma have come to manufacture more than 110 types of oncological drugs. Just six to seven years ago, around 50 percent of the lifesaving medications had to be imported, posing risks of unavailability, high costs and price fluctuations. Now local pharmaceuticals not only meet 80 percent of the country's demand but also export to at least 140 countries, beginning their journey with limited scale shipments in 2015. Local companies manufacture 99 percent of the oncology drugs but some patients still use imported drugs or unofficially import them.

"People laughed at me in 2002 when I had taken an initiative to manufacture oncology products. Finally, my plans came to fruition in 2009. Now the patients can get drugs at a reasonable price," said Md. Ebadul Karim, managing director of Beacon Pharmaceuticals Limited. In the past, only financially solvent patients were able to get treatment due to the high cost of drugs and low-income patients would have to wait till the last moment, he said. According to Karim, Beacon not only manufactures oncology drugs but it also provides support of BDT three crore per annum to the poor patients and provides diagnostic support. He further said neighbouring countries like Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka have a government financial support system for cancer patients. The Bangladesh government can provide similar facilities for cancer patients, he said. Beacon is planning to establish a palliative care centre so that the patients do not have to suffer so much.

"We help the patients lead a quality life after taking treatment," he noted. With a mission to deliver world class anti-cancer products at an affordable price, Eskayef Oncology started its journey in 2018 with many pioneering technologies. Recently, Eskayef Oncology touched another milestone as it has become one of the few Asian companies to get the approval from the prestigious global regulatory body European Union Good Manufacturing Practice (EU GMP) for manufacturing anti-cancer medicines. Eskayef's Oncology Manufacturing Facility is the country's first entity that has secured approval from the EU GMP, which is recognised by 27 nations of the EU and considered a passport for entry into the global market. Eskayef is currently producing both oral and injectable anti-cancer medicines maintaining the standards of the EU regulator. "This recognition will help our drugs enter the EU market and other countries," Dr. Mohammad Mujahidul Islam, Executive Director, Marketing & Sales of Eskayef, said. He also added, "Eskayef is currently exporting its high-quality medicines to 54 countries. With all the latest technologies, facilities and our earnest commitment, Eskayef Oncology is determined to serve the people of Bangladesh and the world with its affordable and global-standard anti-cancer products." Now, the export of oncology drugs is bigger than domestic market demand. To put things into perspective, Bangladesh exported cancer drugs worth over Tk 500 crore in 2019, and the export of these products in 2020 was almost the same although they are yet to receive the full export details, industry insiders said. Meanwhile local cancer drug sales amounted to about Tk 500 crore. Demand is growing by 15 percent on average every year, according to the manufacturers. Along with conventional chemotherapy drugs, local pharmaceutical companies manufacture the latest oncology products such as oral therapy, immunotherapy, monoclonal antibodies, oral targeted therapies, and liposomal technology products, said the director for global business development of Beacon, Monjurul Alam. He informed that Bangladesh's export of cancer drugs was increasing by around 30 to 35 percent year-on-year. Oncology products were beyond the purchasing power of patients in the past but prices went down by 40 percent when Beacon started production through compliance with high standards, he said. Patients in Bangladesh now spend around Tk 500 crore per year for cancer treatment while it would cost at least Tk 2,000 crore if oncology drugs were imported, according to Alam. Bangladesh's drugs are winning the global market for their quality and low prices; the medicines are cheaper than those provided by the developed world, he added. Beacon now manufactures 110 different drugs for all kinds of cancer and exports them to 134 countries. Alam said there is no difference between the generic and original oncology drugs as the local pharmaceutical companies have built world-class manufacturing plants with sophisticated European equipment. Locally produced cancer drugs are of international standards and cheaper than imported ones, which is helping cancer treatment in Bangladesh, Md Azizul Islam, consultant physician general and specialist of medicine and oncology at Bangladesh Armed Forces, said earlier. He believes it will not be long until local pharmaceutical companies manufacture all types of cancer drugs.

According to Bangladesh Pharmaceutical Journal, with the increasing rate of people being affected by cancer in Bangladesh, the disease has become a national concern. Anti-cancer drugs play a significant and crucial role in cancer treatment regimen. Inadequate access to essential anti-cancer medicines may impose serious public health problems in Bangladesh. According to National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), there are 13 to 15 lakh cancer patients in Bangladesh, with about two lakh patients newly diagnosed with cancer each year. Lung cancer and mouth-oropharynx cancer rank as the top two prevalent cancers in males. Other types of cancer are esophagus cancer and stomach cancer. In women, cervix, uterus, and breast cancer are most prevalent. Other cancer types, which affect women, are mouth and oropharynx cancer, lung cancer, and esophagus cancer. There are around 150 qualified clinical oncologists and 16 pediatric oncologists working in the different parts of the country. Regular cancer treatment is available in 19 hospitals and 465 hospital beds are attached as indoor or daycare facilities for chemotherapy in the oncology/radiotherapy departments. There are about 15 linear accelerators, 12 Co-60 teletherapy, and 12 brachytherapy units currently available. There are approximately 56 cancer chemotherapeutic agents in Bangladesh.