China’s veteran drugmakers are rushing into the nucleic acid drug race
Shi Yingzi ·09/05/2022
Feature


By Shi Yingzi, Chu Minhua


China is seeing several very successful Chinese drugmakers rushing into the field of nucleic acid drug field, but success is far from certain.


Image by rawpixel.com


Since 2020, several publicly traded Chinese biopharmaceutical companies have been rushing into the field of nucleic acid drugs, cooperating with start-ups in an effort to ease competitive pressure on existing pipelines.


Such partnerships have yet to see any success, but nucleic acid drugs are cheaper and simpler to develop than antibodies.  


According to PharmaDJ ’s data, 10 publicly traded innovative drug developers announced they would develop nucleic acid drugs and vaccines in the past three years (see table below). Most notable among them are big names like BeiGene, Junshi Biosciences and Innovent Biologics. .


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It’s a growing trend. Even in June and July of this year, three nucleic acid drug-related deals were struck.


However, these companies continue to tread cautiously in this new field. Only one company, Chipscreen Biosciences, has a proprietary technology platform via its subsidiary, Chipscreen Xinyu. All others are opting to collaborate with partners. 


The deal between Everest Medicines and Providence Therapeutics has the highest value. Providence will receive $100 million upfront and up to $400 million in milestone payments. The next is a joint venture between Junshi Biosciences and Immorna. Junshi will inject RMB 799 million ($116 million) including an initial investment of RMB 200 million.


As the only company that conducts its own development, Chipscreen Xinyu introduced external investors in July. After that, Chipscreen's shareholding in the subsidiary decreased to 40%.


Searching for new key products


A lack of competitiveness in existing pipelines may be driving this trend. Genor Biopharma is one such example. Founded in 2007, its candidates in late-stage clinical studies include GB491 (CDK4/6) and GB221 (HER2), both have several competitors and show no clear advantage.


Other companies, like Everest, are facing pressure from investors. Everest stock is now 20% less than its peak price in H2 2021. In 2019, Everest bought sacituzumab govitecan, an ADC-targeted Trop-2 from Immunomedics for $830 million, and the company has high expectations for the drug. However, the results published on this ASCO indicated that, compared to chemotherapy, the drug only extends three-month progression-free survival (PFS) and five-month overall survival (OS) in breast cancer patients. The data is significantly worse than that of the HER2 ADC drug trastuzumab deruxtecan (T-DXd).


Going into nucleic acid drugs may alleviate investor doubt. In May 2022, Everest announced updates to the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine that it had developed in partnership with Providence. When Everest announced that it would release the vaccines head-to-head results with Pfizer’s Paxlovid by mid-2022, its stock rallied, rising 30% in two days.


Prospects remain uncertain


“In the start-up stage of nucleic acid product development, costs are low, technology requirements are relatively easy, and sometimes even the timeline is significantly shorter than with traditional drugs,” an industry expert told PharmaDJ.


Pharma DJ ’s data supports this opinion. Vaccine maker Olymvax is developing an mRNA vaccine with Immorna. The company’s board secretary told investors that it had only spent RMB 1.29 million on its development between June 2020 and 2021, far lower than its planned RMB 2.85 million.


Although publicly traded drugmakers have enough experience and cash, but replicating the success of small moleculars and antibodies may prove difficult with nucleic acid drugs.


In fact, generic drug and vaccine makers already experienced a similar collaboration wave with nucleic acid start-ups with minimal success (see table below). These partnerships were focused on mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. Most companies gave up relatively quickly.  


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Tibet Pharmaceutical cited long development times and more future investment in clinical studies and commercialization as its reason for terminating its partnership with Stemirna Therapeutics, for instance. As of now, there is still no mRNA COVID-19 vaccine approved for the China market.


Other companies, like Olymvax, have said that mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are no longer a focus in their pipeline. Livzon even sold all its shares of Liverna Therapeutics at a lower price upon IND approval.


(Edited by Justin Fischer)

Keywords: China’s veteran drugmakers nucleic acid drug race
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