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China’s homecoming heroes fuel a biotech boom with rapid CAR-T advances

China secures a place at the forefront of innovative medicine

Maria Dahl

Maria Dahl, Head of Transactions within the Oncology R&D Business Development and Licensing group at AstraZeneca

Their alma maters are world-class institutions garlanded with landmark innovation and discovery but a generation of Chinese graduates, PhDs and scientific talent is now heading home to be part of a revolution.

The nation’s biotech boom is rocking the laboratories and trading floors of the world as China secures a place at the forefront of innovative medicine, casting off its reputation as a churning centre for generics.

Generous government grants, a restructured regulatory landscape and booming private investment – all underpinned by President Xi Jinping’s ‘Made in China 2025’ strategy to secure unprecedented market share across life sciences – have helped awaken a pharmaceutical superpower.

At the spear point is China’s emergence as the epicentre of biotech research and development, with its performance on CAR-T therapies turning heads. It now has more than 300 CAR-T clinical trials underway and collaboration with European and US-based multinationals is now commonplace.

The mutual attraction is obvious. The Chinese sector – comprising an ageing population of 1.34 billion people – generates $137bn in annual sales, while choosing innovation over imitation opens up vast global markets for China.

“The driver is obviously the economic climate but the number of Chinese scientists returning every year with expertise from US and European academia and institutions is significant,” said Li Xiaofeng, manager at Deloitte Strategy Consulting, who specialises in the biotech sector.

“There are a lot of incentives for PhD or graduate students to return home. There are salary top-ups, good working conditions, big investments in life sciences incubators for start-ups so China is very attractive. All these elements are coming together as a perfect storm for China.”

New partnerships

An estimated 500,000 Chinese students are studying in the US and Europe, but the traditional pathway of graduation followed by research and lasting careers abroad is being broken up by China’s biotech boom.

Many of the big players have US college heritage: Frank Zhang, chief executive at Legend Biotech did a PhD at Duke University and worked for seven years in a US pharmaceutical company while Dr Zheng Wei, co-founder of Connect, has researched at Stanford University School of Medicine and has a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of California at Davis.

“Government policy amendments have accelerated the regulatory pathway, which is important as cell therapy had been a controversial area,” added Xiaofeng, who was born in China and has a PhD in biomedical science.

“It was a grey area and was treated as medical procedure so individual hospitals almost had their own rights to conduct experiments and sell it as a service. There was no robust, regulatory control but that has changed and any cell therapy now has to be properly approved.”

Tightening up regulatory policies was vital in order to move on from the cell therapy lowlight that saw a 21-year-old student die after he found an experimental cancer therapy online in 2016.

China has long been an alluring country for global pharma companies whose mature investments are now being layered with a new wave of partnerships.

Innovative leadership

AstraZeneca has 18,000 employees in China and recorded 21% of its 2019 sales in the country – a rise of 28% – and last November the company signed three separate collaboration deals within a week.

“For a long time there have been high levels of education and government support for life sciences in China, but originally the strengths of the sector were seen from abroad as being predominantly in areas such as chemistry and Me-Too and Me-Better products.

"There was a time when China was viewed by many in foreign industries as attractive predominantly because it had a well-educated workforce and a relatively cheap labour market,” said Maria Dahl (pictured above), Head of Transactions within the Oncology R&D Business Development and Licensing group at AstraZeneca.

“China is still strong in chemistry and Me-Better drugs but there is a whole new generation of best-in-class and first-in-class companies emerging.” Dahl echoed the importance of the homecoming heroes who are energising the nation’s biotech sector.

“If you look at the leadership in a lot of the innovative companies, they are Chinese nationals who made a conscious decision to come back because the climate is conducive,” she added.

“We did a global search for companies suitable to license compounds in our pipeline and we selected companies in China because they had an R&D skill set, an ability to work at speed and because of the trust we have in them.

“We had compounds we could not develop because our pipeline was so abundant and if they are on the shelf then they are not getting
to the patient, which is something we could not accept. It is quite clear that our Chinese partners could move fast which works well for us and benefits patients as they will have access to new treatments.”

Tapping into expertise

Novartis, the first company to launch a CAR-T, is among others with a strong suit in the Far East, with its chief executive, Vasant Narasimhan, stating in an interview: “There’s no question there’s very strong expertise in China on automation, roboticisation and miniaturisation. We want to tap into it if the quality is there.”

A spokesperson added: “Novartis is committed to bringing innovative medicine and advanced therapies to China to benefit Chinese patients
as soon as possible. As advanced therapies require an innovative approach to drug development, we are working closely with our partners and collaborators in China to advance the development process for tisagenlecleucel in China.

“Novartis has the knowledge and expertise to set the standard for this new therapy platform to support excellent execution of clinical trials and to obtain quality data. We are introducing the international best practices of developing CAR T to our China team and building knowledge and expertise in clinical development for the advanced therapies to overcome hurdles and ensure success.”

Deloitte’s Xiaofeng believes that China’s growth will benefit Europe and the rest of the world. “The innovation and R&D in China is very encouraging because it is pushing science forward and I don’t think that should worry the European market,” he added.

“I work with Top 20 pharma companies and they are scanning innovators for the next product so it is good news for them that there is more choice. Access to that science, although a lot of it is early stage, is important to them.

“I think China will grow and if we look forward 20 years, it is easy to envisage it as a significant player, in terms of science, performing alongside the US, Europe and Japan.”

AstraZeneca has a cautious optimism. “We don’t have a crystal ball to predict geopolitical impacts or epidemics but I can see China operating on a par with the US in terms of innovation,” said Maria Dahl.

The reverse exodus of scientific talent continues in China’s favour and its emerging CAR-T heroes are now wrestling to secure the first home-grown approval. It may take time and there may be bumps along the way but the days of stereotyping China as the land of imitation have been left behind.

Danny Buckland is a journalist specialising in the healthcare industry

24th March 2020

Danny Buckland is a journalist specialising in the healthcare industry

24th March 2020

From: Research

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