China's ZAI Lab goes novel in drug development, makes key hire

Shanghai-based biotech ZAI Lab said it has partnered with the Tsinghua University Immunology Institute on R&D to discover and develop new drugs and also noted the hire of a senior drug development executive, putting it on a path to novel development from a predominantly in-licensing model since launching in 2013.

ZAI CEO Samantha Du

Beijing-based Tsinghua University is a leading research hub in China with the School of Medicine working with multinational and domestic companies on a wide variety of research efforts.

The R&D center will be located at in Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park in Shanghai as an in-house unit and focus on "immunology discovery research and drug development in China." No other details on financial or commercial arrangements were available.

The R&D effort was announced in a press release on the same day as the hire of James Yan as executive vice president and head of early development and drug safety. Yan has worked in nonclinical drug development of small molecules and biologics.

The move was highly talked about in Mainland China pharma circles as Yan joined ZAI Lab from Hutchison China MediTech, or Chi-Med, a unit of Hutchison MediPharma where ZAI Chairman and CEO Samantha Du was founder and CEO and which is a rival in the race to get a novel drug approved in China.

In March, Chi-Med said it had met the primary endpoint of progression-free survival in a Phase II clinical trial for colorectal cancer candidate fruquintinib (HMPL-013), putting it one step closer to China approval. It would mark the first modern drug from China to be approved since artemisinin was developed in the 1970s to treat malaria.

In September, ZAI Lab in-licensed global rights to a first-in-class monoclonal antibody aimed at treating autoimmune and other inflammatory diseases from Belgium's UCB.

That followed an August in-licensed deal with Sanofi ($SNY) for a novel multikinase inhibitor aimed at a non-small cell lung cancer target and a March deal to in-license the China rights to Phase III liver cancer drug brivanib from Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY).

- here's the release on the Tsinghua partnership (PDF)
- and the Yan hire statement from ZAI Lab (PDF)