Zai Lab grabs top AstraZeneca cancer executive to prep its first drug rollout

Zai Lab hires AstraZeneca's China oncology marketing leader William Liang as its commercial head as it prepares to launch Tesaro’s PARP inhibitor niraparib in China. (Zai Lab)

China’s Zai Lab is revving up for its first drug launch, and it's brought on an AstraZeneca oncology executive to lead the charge. 

William Liang, recently AstraZeneca’s oncology sales chief in China, has jumped ship to join Zai as chief commercial officer. During his tenure at AZ, he oversaw the successful China launch of Tagrisso, crucial to the company’s 31% sales increase in the country in the first quarter. 

His first task? Building up a commercial team to enter the commercial stage with Tesaro’s PARP inhibitor Zejula—dubbed ZL-2306 at Zai, which owns the China rights. The med launched in ovarian cancer in the U.S. last year.

In bringing on a sales leader with Big Pharma chops, Zai is treading a well-worn path among biotechs approaching their first drug approval, lacking that sort of marketing experience themselves. Till now, of course, Zai has focused mostly on making deals and advancing its pipeline.

Before joining AstraZeneca, Liang served a stint in cancer sales at Bristol-Myers Squibb and spent more than 13 years at Roche, where he oversaw sales of top-selling cancer drugs Herceptin, Avastin, Rituxan and Tarceva.

“[W]e are looking forward to working closely with William to start building out our China commercial platform across our broad portfolio covering multiple therapeutic areas,” said CEO Samantha Du, Ph.D., in a statement.

While at AZ, as China grew in importance for the global drugmaker, Liang expanded his team from about 500 to 2,000 sales professionals. Now, at Zai, he'll need to build a commercial operation from scratch. CFO Billy Cho told FiercePharma that Zai “plan[s] to sell in-house given our portfolio is focused in transformative medicine,” and is building out a commercial platform from the top down starting with Liang.

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Zai has doubled its staff from about 75 when it went public on Nasdaq last September and now plans to build up to more than 200 by the end of this year, according to its annual report.

Oncology is one major therapeutic focus at Zai, so Liang’s experience in launching and managing oncology drug sales should come in handy for the Chinese biotech, what with the PARP inhibitor as its first launch.

Established by Pfizer veteran Du in 2014, Zai boasts that it’s a “Gateway for China” for biopharmas, thanks to its focus on bringing innovative therapies from its foreign partners to China.

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It gained Chinese rights to Tesaro’s med through a 2016 agreement, but Liang’s first task will be preparing for a launch in Hong Kong, where its approval was based on Zejula’s green lights in the U.S and EU. Next up is the huge market for Zejula on the Chinese mainland, where Zai is wrapping up phase 3 studies testing the med in first- and second-line ovarian cancer. The plan is to expand into multiple solid-tumor indications. In China, the current standard of care for ovarian cancer is still surgery and chemotherapy.

Other in-licensing deals Zai has signed include two anti-inflammatory assets from GlaxoSmithKline, a tie-up with Belgium-based UCB in autoimmune diseases, and a TKI inhibitor deal with Sanofi. Two of its other phase 3 programs cover omadacycline, a broad-spectrum antibiotic licensed from Paratek; and a Five Prime Therapeutics immunotherapy against gastric cancer.