Italian pharma company Indena is strengthening its position in the "natural drug" market - where drug molecules are derived from plants - a potentially lucrative niche area of pharmaceuticals.
According to industry data, almost a third of the new chemical entities discovered in the last 20 years are natural products or natural derivatives, and another 20 per cent are mimic natural products, indicating that the synthetic product has been created by researching into natural substances.
The potential of pharmacognosy - the study of the biochemistry and pharmacology of plant drugs - is therefore enormous, particularly since only a small number of the molecules present in plants have been studied.
In addition, drug molecules derived from botanical sources have advantages over chemically produced ones, particularly as the chemical routes required to arrive at a final active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) tend to be complex and cumbersome.
Indena has been one of the first companies to see the opportunities of this blossoming market, and is specialised in the identification, development and production of active principles derived from plants, for use in the pharmaceutical industry.
The firm's phyto-chemical research, carried out in Indena's own research center in Settala, Italy, covers the screening of medicinal plants for their pharmacological benefits, the identification of new active principles, and the development of extraction and purification systems aimed at industrial applications.
Indena is currently focussing on the development of anti-cancer treatments, following the successes of paclitaxel - an oncology product used in the treatment of breast, ovarian and lung cancer - as well as on anti-microbial and on anti-viral drugs.
It recently signed a deal with Nerviano Medical Sciences, one of the largest oncology-focused R&D firms in Europe, for the scale up and manufacturing of two new drug candidates which are currently in preclinical development.
The first one, IDN 5404, is an API selected for its action against tumour resistance to cisplatin and topotecan.
The second one, IDN 5243, is an original new chemical entity that has muscle-relaxant properties.
Indena discovered the two new molecules from botanical origin and has chartered the original semi-synthetic path. Nerviano, on the other hand, will scale up the process. The firm said that both molecules have successfully undergone the preclinical studies and are now approaching Phase I.
"Also under study are active principles for the treatment of pathologies and dysfunction of the central nervous system, such as depression, anxiety, impotence, sleep disorders, and algesia," the firm said. Meanwhile, the company has recently materialised some other projects it had in the pipeline.
Indena has now opened a branch in China, strengthening its long-term relationship with the country for the traditional Chinese medicine market.
"A foothold in China today is a must for a globalised company, all the more so when it can draw on three decades of successful cooperation," the company said.
In China, traditional herbal preparations account for 30 to 50 per cent of the total medicinal consumption, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The global market for herbal medicines currently stands at over $60bn (€47bn) annually and is growing steadily, which shows a increasingly wider acceptability of "natural medicines".
Furthermore, in a bid to find new ways to make industrial production and processes more efficient and to cope with increasing demand, the firm has invested in new production equipment for two of its plants.
The firm has launched a new production line for cytotoxic compounds in its main manufacturing site in Setalla, Italy.
It has also invested in a new purification line in its second largest production site in Tours, France.
The company said these efforts will allow it "to remain at the forefront of the industry."