Ionis looks east, teaming up with Ribo to bring RNA drugs to China

DNA research
The deal also gives Ribo access to Ionis' single-stranded RNA platform.

Ionis Pharmaceuticals has enlisted the help of Suzhou Ribo Life Science to help it bring three of its RNA-based drugs to the Chinese market.

The California antisense and RNA interference (RNAi) specialist says it is giving its Chinese counterpart commercial rights to two unidentified second-generation antisense drugs—targeting metabolic disease and cancer—as well as an option on a third candidate.

Fueled by a massive population and increasing prosperity, China's $115 billion pharma market remains hugely attractive to biopharma companies despite issues such as difficulties in securing patent protection—particularly for biologic drugs—and weak intellectual property enforcement as detailed in PhRMA's recently published Special 301 report.

New medicines typically take four to six years longer to reach the Chinese market than other major international markets, but the timelines can be improved by working closely with a domestic player in the market, and that can also help with the patent process.

Ionis Senior VP of Drug Discovery Brett Monia, Ph.D., described Ribo as an "ideal partner" in China thanks to its own focus on RNAi-based drugs and local drug development and regulatory expertise. Clinical data generated for the partnered drugs within China would also be used to support their global development.

"The need for new medicines in China is growing rapidly, especially for metabolic diseases and certain genetically defined cancers," he added. Ionis' metabolic pipeline currently includes drugs for diabetes and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, while it has three drugs in trials for cancer including an androgen receptor targeting therapy for prostate cancer.

Financial terms for the agreement with Ribo haven't been divulged, other than to say that the Chinese biotech will be responsible for all development and commercialization activities and costs in China for each drug it licenses.

Ribo—which raised around $40 million last month in a second-round financing led by China's State Development & Investment Corp.—has also signed up for a multiyear program to find new drugs based on Ionis' single-stranded RNA platform.

The tie-up with Ionis isn't the first for the Chinese biotech, which has in-house programs focusing on hepatitis B, high cholesterol and liver cancer. It formed a joint venture called RiboQuark with U.S. RNAi specialist Quark Pharmaceuticals in 2014 which is focusing on QPI-1007, a drug in trials for nonarteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy and open-angle glaucoma.