Wealthy Czechs Pour Funds in Quest for Cancer-Fighting Drugs

  • Czech oil magnate Komarek joins search for cancer-curing drug
  • Cancer is second-most common cause of death in Czech Republic

Karel Komarek, a Czech oil magnate who survived prostate cancer, has taken his life-changing experience to the laboratory.

Komarek’s self-funded cancer-drug research project keeps him busy three days a week managing the effort in Prague. A completed round of tests on animals showed promising signs against some forms of breast and pancreatic cancer and a slowdown in malignant metastasis, he said. Cancer is the second-biggest cause of death in the former communist country of 10.5 million people.

Sotio AS laboratory in Prague.
Sotio AS laboratory in Prague.
Photographer: Martin Divisek/Bloomberg

“This is something you absolutely can’t be sure will work out,” the soft-spoken 66-year-old businessman said. “Only one thing is certain, that you will spend money. I’m pressuring everyone by saying, ‘Oh come on, we need to find solutions to help the people dying out there.’”

Komarek, who helped to set up KKCG investment group that focuses on oil and gas and books annual revenue of $1 billion, is joining the Czech Republic’s richest man, billionaire Petr Kellner, in branching out beyond their traditional businesses into pharmaceutical research, now dominated by foreign companies that spend $83 million a year to research diseases in the central European country. Komarek’s openness about his past sickness and research investment may also further boost cancer awareness.

Research Funding

KKCG, now run by his son, also named Karel, estimates investments into the first two rounds of testing have been between 150 million koruna ($6.2 million) and 200 million koruna, with most of the funds coming from its own sources, spokeswoman Dana Dvorakova said. The group, which is acting as financial investor, will try to find a strategic investor, “most probably a pharmaceutical company” to join the project, she added.

Kellner’s Sotio biotech company, which is seeking to develop active cellular immunotherapy for treatment of prostate, ovarian and lung cancer, has invested “billions of koruna” into research and clinical development, the unit’s spokesman, Richard Kapsa, said without elaborating. Sotio expects the third phase of clinical testing and evaluation of its prostate-cancer product to be completed “around 2020,” he said.

Kellner, who built the Czech Republic’s biggest fortune on businesses ranging from mobile phones to Russian gold mines, keeps a low public profile in his homeland. He ranks 89th on Bloomberg Billionaires Index, with net worth of $12 billion. When asked why the 52-year-old billionaire decided to branch out into this industry four years ago, his company’s spokeswoman, Zuzana Migdalova, said in an e-mail that biotech technology are one of key company’s key focuses.

Industry Risks

“We know the risks of this industry and the need for great investments and their long-term character,” she said. “If this business is to function, the model has to be set up in a way that it would bring profit in very long-term horizon.” The group also “strongly” considers the non-financial aspect of this activity as the “reward is not only a potential profit, but mainly saved lives and improved quality of life for” cancer patients.

Only time will tell whether local efforts will reach a successful end as funding, timing and speed are crucial determinants in pharma research, Jakub Dvoracek, the executive director of the Association of Innovative Pharmaceutical Industry, which groups 33 foreign pharma companies with research in the Czech Republic, said in an interview.

“I’m really keeping my fingers crossed for them, it would be amazing if there would be a Czech company with an original product,” said Dvoracek. “But time is passing.”

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