Amgen and Zhejiang Beta Pharma said today they will form a joint venture to commercialize Amgen’s metastatic colorectal cancer drug (mCRC) Vectibix® (panitumumab) in China.

The venture will draw on Zhejiang’s strengths of maintaining China’s largest oncology sales network and its focus on developing and commercializing molecular targeted cancer drugs for Chinese patients. Founded in 2003, Zhejiang launched Icotinib for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) in China two years ago.

Ownership of the new venture, to be named Amgen-Beta Pharmaceuticals, will be split 51%–49% in favor of Zhejiang Beta, and is still subject to approval by Chinese authorities and other closing conditions, the companies said. Zhejiang Beta Pharma is itself a joint venture between Beta Pharma, founded 1996 as a CRO, and an investor group.

“This joint venture brings us one step closer to providing Chinese patients with Amgen’s medicines and supports our strategy of expanding in key, fast-growing markets,” Anthony C. Hooper, evp at Amgen, said in a statement.

Vectibix is a monoclonal antibody that binds specifically to the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). On Tuesday, Amgen reported results from its Phase III “ASPECCT (‘763)” study, showing that Vectibix was at least as effective as rival drug Erbitux (cetuximab), marketed by Eli Lilly and Merck Serono, as a single agent for mCRC patients with wild-type KRAS tumors.

Like other biopharmas, Amgen is counting on expanded indications and increased sales in China and other emerging markets to make up for sales to be lost in the U.S. and Europe due to patent expirations. One Amgen anemia drug Aranesp (darbepoetin alfa) will see its European patent expire next year, while another, Epogen (epoetin alfa), will see two of its four U.S. patents expire August 20, and the rest in 2014 and 2015.

Vectibix’ U.S. patents will expire in 2017 and 2020, while its European patents will expire in 2017 and 2018.

Vectibix sales rose 11.5% last year compared with 2011, to $359 million from $322 million. While analysts predicted as much as $1 billion in annual sales when the drug was approved by FDA in 2006, Vectibix has faced stiff competition from other mCRC drugs, namely Avastin (bevacizumab), marketed by Roche, and Erbitux.

However, Avastin and Erbitux are not yet sold in China, though they have been approved by the State Food and Drug Administration, giving the Zhejiang-Amgen venture an advantage it hopes to capitalize on.

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