Following a recent capital injection of USD 67 million, Chinese biotech EdiGene is set to advance its pipeline in gene editing treatments and therapies as it becomes a clinical-phase company. The company’s CEO spoke to PharmaBoardroom about how Edigene’s technology platforms differ from those of other firms, and why the aspiration of becoming globally competitive in the gene editing field is more than a pipe dream.
EdiGene, based in China’s capital Beijing, but with sites in both China and the US, plans to use the USD 67 million series B funding to progress its beta-thalassemia treatment and allogenic CAR-T therapy and further expand its team. To date, EdiGene has developed four platforms centred around gene editing technology: an in vitro cell gene editing therapy platform for hematopoietic stem cells and T cells, an in vivo gene editing therapy platform based on RNA single-base editing technology, and a targeted high-throughput genome editing and screening platform for drug development.
3H Health investment led the call with assists from new investors Sequoia Capital China, Alwin Capital and Kunlun Capital, as well as previous investors that had stumped up over USD 30 million, IDG Capital, Lilly Asia Venture and others.
When PharmaBoardroom spoke to EdiGene CEO Dong Wei back in December 2019, he highlighted the challenges of starting a cell and gene therapy company in China, why the Chinese market requires China-tailored solutions that differ from the current Big Pharma model, and his aspirations to ultimately make EdiGene a globally competitive gene-editing player.
We aim to produce a CAR-T therapy from a single healthy donor that can be supplied to hundreds of patients. This will drive the cost down and the quality up
In terms of establishing such a company in China, Dong noted that, “There are three main challenges. The first challenge is how to bring my US management style and drug development principles into China. Believe or not, I suffered from ‘reverse culture shock’ when I first arrived. I had never worked in China before and I did not know how to speak in Chinese for management or science. When I first left China, I dreamt of the day where I would stop thinking in Chinese or having to translate from Chinese to English before saying anything. Now, it is the opposite.”
He continued, “The second challenge is the technology itself: how to translate cutting-edge science into something that could actually help patients. This can be impacted by external factors that are outside our control. For instance, in November 2018, Chinese researcher He Jiankui announced that he had edited the CCR5 gene of two babies, which became extremely controversial globally due to the unresolved ethical issues surrounding gene-editing in humans. This triggered a massive backlash in part against the technology and in part against Chinese researchers. In that context, Professor Wei and I consider it our responsibility to realize the great positive potential of the technology.”
“The third challenge is dealing with HR against the backdrop of explosive biotech development in China. For the past few years, China’s biopharma industry has grown exponentially, resulting in an overflow of capital and a lot of competition for talent. The challenge is how to recruit the right team to develop our technology. The success of a company ultimately depends on recruiting the right team – and this is more difficult for gene-editing companies like EdiGene.”
In Dong’s view, EdiGene differs from its peers in a number of ways, not least in terms of the affordability and scalability of the products it hopes to one day bring to market. He explains, “In China, patients cannot spend USD 400,000 like in the US, so affordability with regards to CAR-T is always an issue. Our technology will address this issue – we aim to produce a CAR-T therapy from a single healthy donor that can be supplied to hundreds of patients. This will drive the cost down and the quality up.”
CRISPR too will provide EdiGene with more efficient R&D tools. “Today, most MNCs are focusing on targeted therapies and a big question is how gene mutations cause tumours to become more or less drug-resistant,” notes Dong. “A better method is to knock out all the 20,000 genes in the human cell and see which cells survive. Doing this one gene at a time would take up to 5 years. Instead, we use hundreds of millions of cells and perform a whole genome knock-out using CRISPR, shortening the time dramatically.”
He adds, “The main challenge for targeted therapies against cancer today is the development of drug resistance through mutations, which is why companies are developing second- and third-generations of the same drug. There is a traditional Chinese proverb that means ‘there is a constant fight between the shield and the spear’: once you develop a better shield, the spear will evolve, and so on in an unending cycle. Our story is the same. We need to develop better spears for every new drug mutation shield we encounter.”
Looking to the future, and the company’s potential in what is predicted to be a USD 6.28 billion global genome editing market by 2022, with a compound annual growth rate of 14.5 percent, Dong is highly optimistic. “EdiGene is among the top companies for genome editing in China,” he proclaims. “We have a robust portfolio, great support from investors and also the government – and of course, a very strong team.”
With the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to the developers of CRISPR/Cas9 Emmanuel Carpentier and Jennifer Dudner, EdiGene at the forefront of a hot topic in global life sciences. “In the short term, we hope that our technology can become a viable product to save patients and transform lives,” state Dong. “In the longer-term, we aspire to become one of the top companies for genome editing with the capabilities to save the lives of patients globally.”