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Amgen has found itself at the centre of the Australian body politic. AAP/Paul Jeffers

Amgen and Abbott: who’s that on the PM’s cycling kit?

You may have noticed our Prime Minister Tony Abbott riding around in cycling kit with the Amgen logo across his chest, back and legs. Amgen is the principal sponsor of an Australian fundraising cycling event called Pollie Pedal, which, not surprisingly, features politicians cycling to raise money for various charities (this year, Carers Australia). So what, exactly, is Amgen?

Amgen is an American drug company, one of four that sponsor Pollie Pedal along with the pharmaceutical industry group Medicines Australia. This is ironic, given Tony Abbott’s cabinet has dropped science from its portfolio and for the first time in around 80 years we do not have some form of science ministry.

Tony Abbott prepares for a ride the morning after the 2013 election. AAP/Paul Miller

But unlike the other drug company sponsors of Pollie Pedal – Pfizer, Alphapharm and Roche – Amgen, which started life as Applied Molecular Genetics, is a biopharmaceutical company.

Most of the drugs you are familiar with, such as aspirin, codeine, drugs for controlling blood pressure or statins for reducing cholesterol are small molecule drugs. Pfizer’s Viagra and Roche’s Tamiflu are also small molecule drugs. Most are designed to be taken by mouth.

In contrast, biopharmaceuticals are mostly proteins. They are either protein hormones (or hormone mimics) or antibodies and need to be given by injection or infusion.

Conventional drug companies are no strangers to protein drugs: insulin for type I diabetes is but one example. Before the molecular biology revolution though, these protein hormones were laboriously and expensively isolated from animal tissue.

As the hormones were not identical to the humans ones, they had a number of drawbacks (such as the body making antibodies to these hormones – rare, but it did happen).

With the molecular biology revolution, the genes for human protein hormones could be isolated, placed in other organisms (such as bacteria), and large amounts of human hormone made relatively cheaply. The first human recombinant insulin went on the market in 1977.

Tony Abbott in action. AAP/Paul Miller

Amgen was formed in the first flush of this revolution. In cramped, unglamourous laboratories, Amgen’s scientists aimed to isolate the genes that controlled the formation of blood cells. In 1983 they succeeded in isolating the gene that controlled red blood cell formation, and expressed it in hamsters.

This sounds exactly like the research that various ministers in our incoming government have decried as “wasteful” - human genes in hamsters indeed. But it was this research (which itself was based on a whole lot of fundamental research which at the time had no obvious commercial or health application) which gave the world erythropoietin (popularly known as EPO).

Erythropoietin. Wikipedia Commons

Now, unless you have been living as a hermit in the Simpson Desert for the last decade, the irony of the manufacturers of EPO sponsoring a cycling event will not have escaped you. I have to emphasise though that Amgen does not condone or support the abuse of EPO by athletes in any way. Indeed, most of the EPO used in athletics does not come from Amgen but is made by pirate drug companies.

What EPO did was revolutionise the treatment of anaemia in chronic kidney failure. In chronic kidney failure people have anaemia due to a variety of factors, including high blood urea destroying blood cells and blood loss during dialysis.

This leads to complications with the heart and blood vessels, and the debilitating symptoms of chronically low blood haemoglobin seriously reduced people’s quality of life. Additionally, low blood haemoglobin and increased antibodies from multiple blood transfusions lowered the success rates for kidney transplants.

EPO changed all that. People with chronic kidney failure are living longer and better lives, and kidney transplants are more successful due to EPO. EPO started Amgen’s fortunes.

But you would be surprised to learn that EPO is not Amgen’s top-selling drug. That is the anti-arthritis drug etanercept, an antibody that knocks out a key inflammatory protein involved in arthritis. Etanercept is also the 7th highest earning drug in the US. The next highest selling drug is Filgrastim, a protein related to EPO that boosts white blood cell numbers in people who can’t make enough white blood cells. It is the 10th highest earner in the US.

Tony Abbott recovers after finishing a leg of the 2013 Pollie Pedal. AAP/Ben Macmahon

The iconic EPO is Amgen’s third highest seller (the 23rd highest selling drug in the US). Although Amgen has only 12 drugs approved for sale in the US, it is the largest biopharmaceutical company in the world, valued at US$19 billion in 2012.

While this is nowhere near the worth of Pfizer (valued at US$81 billion and producing more than 50 drugs) it is quite comfortable (Roche, also considered a big drug company, is valued at US$14.5 billion and produces more than 40 drugs).

Amgen is also a great survivor. Biopharmaceutical companies flower and fall like cherry blossoms in the spring, and it is one of the very few companies that have survived for any length of time, let alone since the 1980s.

I started off contrasting the classic, small molecule drug companies with Amgen as a biopharmaceutical company. But, of course, things change in the rapidly evolving world of drugs. Ever greater numbers of small molecule companies are making biopharmaceuticals. Roche has acquired the biopharmaceutical company Genentech and is marketing antibodies for cancer therapy. Amgen is developing small molecule drugs for schizophrenia and heart failure.

The vagaries of the drug market are legendary, and no drug company is immune to collapse. But Amgen looks set to being able to sponsor Pollie Pedal for at least the near future. One wonders if, as Tony Abbott and his fellow government members don their Amgen kit, they will pause to reflect that their stated policies on grant funding would stifle the very kinds of research that lead to the development of EPO and the rise of their sponsor?

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