PharmaBoardroom sat down with more than 25 biotech CEOs in China in 2019. We analyzed the contents of the interviews and found the following recurring themes at the top of these executives’ minds.
One recurring theme throughout the interviews was a stated commitment to patients. Many of these Chinese biotechs are striving to make their high-tech products more cost-effective to reach the maximum number of patients possible. EdiGene CEO Dong Wei reflected that “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.”
While many biotechs in China are focusing their efforts on cancer treatments, Frontier Biotech takes a different approach. CEO CJ Wang saw a huge unmet need in the area of HIV and decided to tackle the issue. In our interview, Wang elaborated on Frontier’s focus area, “In particular, patients with serious conditions (e.g. comorbidities, drug resistance, surgery, impaired kidney and liver functions, etc) need fast-acting, efficacious and very safe injectables – like Aikening®. In many markets, particularly developing countries including China, this particular group of HIV patients has significant unmet medical needs.”
Patients serve as the foundation for establishing a broad company vision, thus guiding biotechs in setting goals and making decisions. When PharmaBoardroom sat down with Zheru Zhang, president of I-Mab Biopharma, he resonated with the vision set forth by its founder: “From the very beginning of I-Mab, our founder, Chairman and CEO, Dr. Jingwu Zang has set the vision to bring transformational medicines to patients globally through innovation.”
Clinical trials were also a key topic, as being able to demonstrate the effectiveness of a biotech’s products is key to its survival, growth, and internationalization.
Many biotechs take an international approach to clinical trials after extensively studying the markets in various countries. Irwin Wang of Reistone Biopharma explained why the Central and Eastern Europe region is an attractive destination: “We decided to run trials not only in China and the US but also Poland and Ukraine because based on our extensive experience, both markets are very good for patient recruitment. They are not as advanced as Western European markets but they actually contribute the most patients to clinical trials across the whole of Europe. Patients in Poland and Ukraine are more willing to participate in trials to access new and innovative therapies, and physicians are also more willing to run trials to access new medicines. Since speed is key in Phase II studies, we thought it would be useful to run our trials there.”
At the top of every biotech CEO’s mind is which stage of clinical trials their molecules are in, as well as what’s next on the radar. John Yu of CGenetech shared clinical trial data with PharmaBoardroom: “CGT-8012 (Cetagliptin phosphate), our DPP-4 compound, is in Phase I trial at the moment. Unlike oncology trials, diabetes trials emphasize safety and population more, so even for our Phase I trial, we recruited nearly 200 people, and expect to finish in H1 2019. Then we will enter Phase II/III, no later than early-2020. The data so far is already very impressive.”
Cancer is one of the hottest topics in Chinese biotech, with companies aiming to develop the right molecule to target specific cancers.
Biotech CEOs explain the science behind their research, hoping to differentiate themselves in a crowded field. Dajun Yang, chairman of Ascentage Pharma, highlighted why his company focuses on aptosis: “Certainly, over the past ten years, many new technologies like cell therapies and checkpoint inhibitors like PD-1/PD-L1s have emerged. But we continue to believe that apoptosis is a very key area for two reasons. Firstly, biologically, apoptosis is a very important regulatory pathway for cancer. This has been known for over 30 years but the main challenge is that it is very difficult to develop molecules targeting this pathway. Secondly, we see that many companies have tried and failed in this area in the past. This means that the playing field is not as crowded, which means it is easier to differentiate and position ourselves.”
Zhang Yu, CEO of Aeon Therapeutics, explains his rationale for honing in on liver cancer as an unmet need in China, “Given our limited resources as a new biotech, we started by focusing on only one indication. We picked HCC because liver cancer is a significant area of unmet need in China. Liver cancer is a major cause of death in China, and globally, over 50 percent of new liver cancer cases as well as deaths from liver cancer come from China. As a Chinese biotech, we also wanted to focus on a China-specific cancer indication.”
When developing molecules, playing the long game, being persistent and having a long-term vision are what keep biotech stakeholders motivated. Dajun Yang of Ascentage Pharma believes that “biotech innovation requires long-term planning, focus and persistence over decades, not just years. In China, over the past few years in particular, it seems that there are some people that expect quick returns and quick money from this sector. There are simply no shortcuts.”
Knowing that research and development is a long-term process, biotech leaders constantly look for ways to increase efficiency; some, such as Cheney Mao of Viva Biotech, find success in a specific technology: “Structure-based drug discovery (SBDD)… is a very popular and core technology. Based on last year’s review, almost 50 percent of drugs in clinical trials have been discovered by using this technique. In addition, this technology also increases the efficiency of drug discovery – by two-fold over the past decade, cutting discovery time from an average of six years to three years.”
Internationalization is a core part of many Chinese biotech’s strategies, with the goal of being able to commercialise products around the world. Oncologie, a biomarker-focused company, already has a dual presence in China and the US. CEO Laura Benjamin detailed the company’s global reach, “We have a global strategy and we aim to incorporate Asia in our global strategy from the get-go. We have found some very strong development leaders with extensive pharma and biotech experience, both in the US and Europe, but also within the Asia-Pacific region, to guide us through the process. The assets we have in-licensed, such as bavituximab, have prior clinical experience in US, EU and Asia, including Taiwan and South Korea.”
As important as going global is for biotechs, they must also weigh the pros and cons of internationalization depending on treatment areas and clinical trials. Gmax Biopharm’s founder Shugian Jing explained, “For our PAH program, for instance, as an orphan drug, it requires comparatively less resources for development, so we are inclined to look at global development and commercialization. For other programs in diabetes and obesity, it would be more difficult to conduct large-scale global trials so we would tend to concentrate on China and perhaps the US markets first. Of course, if we meet potential partners, we are very open to global co-development, co-marketing or other kinds of collaboration.”