What goes around comes around. Pfizer (NYSE:PFE), Merck (NYSE:MRK), and Eli Lilly (NYSE:LLY) hope that's a good thing.

Today the trio announced that they're setting up a nonprofit called the Asian Cancer Research Group to study -- you guessed it -- cancers prevalent in Asia. The group will start with lung and gastric cancers, two of Asia's most common forms, and share the information they find with researchers.

Since the genetic makeup of Asians is different than Western individuals -- as much as 40% of Asian lung cancer patients show a mutation that is much rarer in the West -- it makes sense to study cancers specific to different regions. We already know that drugs such as Amgen's (NASDAQ:AMGN) Vectibix and Erbitux from Eli Lilly and Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE:BMY) work on tumors in people with a specific genetic makeup. Medicine is getting more personalized, and this is just one more example of how DNA sequencing will drive the future of medicine.

So why are the companies setting up the research center instead of keeping the information to themselves? Much like GlaxoSmithKline's (NYSE:GSK) donation of potential malaria drugs, the announcement makes this new effort sound like an altruistic move. The cancers "remain a huge unmet need and a disproportionate health burden to Asian patients," and all that jazz.

Call me a cynic, but I think the companies are counting on a future payoff from whatever resources they put into the research group.

I don't have any hard facts, but I'd bet the return on investment in basic research isn't that great. By setting up a research group and releasing the data, the companies can foster independent government-sponsored research at universities. The companies can then use the increased knowledge of how different gene mutations affect the body to design drugs specific for different genetic backgrounds.

Will that help relieve the "health burden to Asian patients?" Absolutely, but it'll also increase the companies' revenue. As far as I can tell, shareholders need not worry that the companies are donating their profits frivolously.

Let us know what you think in Motley Fool CAPS. Make an out- or underperform call on these companies; post a pitch about whether you think the companies are altruistic or have another motive. It's free. It's fun. And, it's Foolish.

Fool contributor Brian Orelli, Ph.D., doesn't own shares of any company mentioned in this article. Pfizer is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. The Fool owns shares of GlaxoSmithKline and has a disclosure policy.