The COVID-19 conference served as a wake-up call and a stimulant for vaccine R&D for the vaccine business globally and in Asia. While local businesses are working hard to catch up quickly in the development of innovative vaccines and are concentrating on other therapeutic areas including cancer and cell and gene therapy, global giants like BioNTech, Moderna, MSD, and Sanofi have announced ambitions to grow footprints in Asia. As a result of these advances, Asia is becoming a centre for bioscience innovation.
Many others had the same question when the leader in ADCs globally, SEAGEN, announced a $2.6 billion deal to in-license an ADC from RemeGen in 2021.
RemeGen is a Chinese biopharma with a modest public presence and a brief history, but it has made impressive progress towards becoming the region’s innovation leader in the biosciences sector. RemeGen also has clinical stage assets targeting mesothelin, c-MET, and CLDN 18.2, all from its proprietary ADC platform, in addition to the $1 billion disitamab targeting Her-2. In addition to ADC, its first-in-class fusion protein Telitacicept was launched in China for SLE and is currently being tested in numerous international studies for gMG and IgAN.
RemeGen is not the only Asian company driving cutting-edge advancements. More lately, a number of international agreements with prominent Asian actors have surfaced.
Oncology as a Key Focus
Asia continues to bear a heavy burden of disease from cancer, and specific cancer types, such as colorectal, gastric, and liver cancer, have an unusually high frequency, mortality, and unmet requirements. It is hardly unexpected that many Asian businesses have chosen oncology as their main area of interest.
- Leading oncology business Hengrui holds a commanding position for its CDK 4/6, PARP, and PD-1 inhibitors that have been authorised in China. In the meanwhile, almost 30% of its income has been allocated to R&D, and its pipeline consists of many antibodies, ADCs, and PROTACs.
With a world-class portfolio and strong R&D capabilities, BeiGene is well known outside of Asia. Its BTK inhibitor, zanubrutinib, was the first Chinese medication to receive FDA approval and outperformed the long-recognized gold standard of treatment for treating r/r CLL patients worldwide in a vigorous head-to-head study.
A Japanese biotech company called Chordia Science is specialising in creating new inhibitors that stop or alter RNA dysregulation. Its pipeline contains transcription inhibitors, splicing, RNA degradation, and tRNA recruitment, some of which are in clinical stages and are being developed in collaboration with large pharmaceutical companies.
Cell and Gene Therapies Gain Momentum
In Asia, cell and gene therapy (CGT) has advanced significantly during the past three years. In actuality, more than half of all CGT trials worldwide are conducted in Asia.
- With Legend Biotech’s Cilta-cel as a front-runner getting approvals in the US, Japan, and EU, the China cell treatments market is seeing exciting advancements. Many other products are in the pipeline and aim to treat various cancer types, including solid tumours. The field of gene therapy is also advancing quickly, with top businesses like Belief Biomed and GeneCradle focusing on haemophilia and Pompe illness with impressive results at an advanced level.
- In 2021, two South Korean biotech firms, GC LabCell and GC Cell, teamed up with Merck to create two CAR-NK prospects. A cooperation between Takeda and the Japanese start-up Noile-Immune Biotech will focus on clinical stage assets that target mesothelin and GPC3 in solid tumours.
- They offer the potential to overcome the drawbacks of conventional CAR-Ts since their CAR-T cells have been genetically engineered to simultaneously generate interleukin-7 and CCL19.
Updating on New Vaccines
The COVID-19 conference served as a wake-up call and a stimulant for vaccine R&D for the vaccine business globally and in Asia. While regional businesses like CSPC and CanSino are working hard to catch up quickly in the development of innovative vaccines, global heavyweights like BioNTech, Moderna, MSD, and Sanofi have announced ambitions to grow footprints in Asia.
- The first mRNA vaccine, COVID-19, was approved for emergency use by CSPC Pharmaceutical in 2023, and CanSino was successful in obtaining permission for the world’s first inhaled COVID-19 vaccine in 2022. To achieve triple protection, the latter not only increases mucosal immunity but also stimulates humoral and cellular immunity.
- After a decade of investment, Takeda’s dengue vaccine Qdenga received approval in 2022 in Indonesia, Europe, and Brazil. This was a significant victory for the business and for Asia’s biosciences sector as well.
New Tactics Underlying Asset Deals
A few large pharmaceutical companies are pursuing Asia in other ways than asset purchases. For instance, to assist coordinated efforts towards partnerships in Asia, Boehringer Ingelheim developed an External Innovation Hub in China that combines its research, business development, and licencing as well as its corporate venture funds. Since 2020, the company has also formed several relationships with top innovators in China, Korea, Singapore, and India.
In the meantime, AZ and China International Capital Corp. have established an investment fund specifically for the healthcare industry. Since then, it has made over a dozen equity investments in businesses involved in diagnostics, RNA treatments, cell and gene therapies, digital medicines, and contract research organisations. The strategy to investing is consistent with how AZ has always built ecosystems, and more projects may be in the works. When CEO Pascal Soriot recently returned from a trip to China, he expressed his desire for further mergers and acquisitions there, citing the “explosion of biotech companies that are coming up with innovative medicines and new technologies” in the country.
Going forward, the pharmaceutical sector is probably going to see a lot more Asian-focused mergers. Some of the recent activities may very well represent the start of larger-scale M&As and follow-up transactions. Many Asian businesses are still relatively new and modest in scope, limited by money and resources, and have been battling recent headwinds from the capital market slump. Such dynamics could be favourable for closing deals. Also starting to emerge are the upcoming waves of biopharmaceutical advances.
In Asia, there is a thriving R&D environment for innovative vaccines, RNA medicines, PROTACs, and radiopharmaceuticals, and gene treatments in particular are positioned to become tomorrow’s big breakthroughs. While others are setting the standard for the treatment of Leber hereditary optic neuropathy and herpes simplex virus infections, certain Asian businesses are hard on the heels of global pioneers in well-established indications like haemophilia and spinal muscular atrophy.
At the same time, Asian companies in gene therapy frequently plan out their development programmes in a way that is cost-conscious. As a result, they may enter the commercialization stage with significantly different cost and pricing concerns and, as a result, stronger value propositions for Asia and beyond.
Overall, world-class discoveries and exciting advancements have been made in the Asian bioscience sector on many fronts, and more are expected in the future thanks to the industry’s strong drivers.
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