A new Chinese drug for colorectal cancer could mark an important milestone
WALK into the Shanghai laboratories of Chi-Med, a biotech firm, and you encounter the sort of shiny, cutting-edge facilities common in any major pharma company in America, Europe or Japan. Chi-Med has just had positive results in a late-stage trial of its drug for colorectal cancer, which is called Fruquintinib. If the drug is approved both in China and in Western markets it could be the very first prescription drug to be designed and developed entirely in China that will be on a path to global commercialisation.
Given China’s ageing population, higher incomes and rising demand for health care it is clear why innovation in drugs is a priority for the country. Its national market for drugs has grown rapidly in recent years to become the world’s second-largest. It could grow from $108bn in 2015 to around $167bn by 2020, according to an estimate from America’s Department of Commerce. By comparison, America spends about $400bn a year on drugs.
Chinese firms mainly sell cheap, generic medicines that earn only razor-thin margins. The pharma industry is extremely fragmented, with thousands of tiny manufacturers and distributors. That helps explain the limited amount of finance that is available for investment in new medicines. Most Chinese pharma firms devote less than 5% of sales to R&D, according to a report last year from the World Health Organisation (big global drug firms typically spend 14%-18% of sales on R&D). And the bulk of that spending goes to research into generics.
But things are changing quickly. The government is encouraging the industry to consolidate, chiefly by raising standards for the quality of new medicines. It is also improving the country’s regulatory infrastructure, which should make it more efficient, and faster, to develop drugs. The value of deals in the health-care sector has been increasing as a result. ChinaBio, a research firm, reckons that over $40bn of foreign and local money went into the life sciences in China in 2016. In the same year just three Chinese biotech firms—CStone, Innovent and Ascletis—together raised more than $500m of financing.
Another boost is the arrival of talent from abroad, whether Chinese-born executives returning with a Western education or Westerners with experience of multinational pharmaceutical firms. Christian Hogg, the boss of Chi-Med—which was founded in 2000, has eight drugs in clinical development and listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange in 2016—used to work at Procter & Gamble, a global consumer-goods firm. Samantha Du, the firm’s very first scientific officer, was formerly an executive at Pfizer, an American pharma giant. Now known as the godmother of Chinese biopharma, she used to manage health-care investments for Sequoia Capital, a Silicon Valley venture-capital firm. In 2013 she helped found Zai Lab, which licenses late-stage drugs from Western pharma companies to develop and sell in China. Zai Lab also aims to develop innovative medicines in immuno-oncology.
Another firm attracting attention is BeiGene, an oncology firm based in Beijing, which has four clinical-stage drug candidates and which raised $158m in an IPO last year. Chi-Med’s Fruquintinib may even be beaten in the race to approval in America and Japan by a cancer drug called Epidaza from Chipscreen Biosciences of Shenzhen. China approved it in 2015.
It is too early to say whether these innovative firms will remain rarities. Only a few large ones have emerged, since the industry is resisting consolidation. But the size of the local market will itself help the industry grow. And developing a drug in China is far cheaper than it is in America or Europe. Given the outrage at the high cost of drugs in America, in particular, there is every incentive for Chinese firms to develop medicines for the global market.