Ascletis poaches top MSD China executive as its new R&D chief

Ascletis Pharma has enticed a big pharma veteran to serve as its new chief medical officer and head of R&D, attracting former MSD China global vice president Zhengqing Li, Ph.D., to the role.

Li has also served as general manager of MSD China’s R&D operations since 2011 and is credited with helping the Merck & Co. unit gain Chinese approval for more than 20 product filings, including checkpoint inhibitor Keytruda, hepatitis C treatment Zepatier and human papillomavirus vaccine Gardasil.

At Hong Kong-listed Ascletis—the first biotech to take advantage of the exchange’s relaxed rule on listings for prerevenue companies last year—Li will be responsible for bringing forward a pipeline of antiviral therapies both within China and overseas.

Ascletis CEO Jinzi Wu, Ph.D., says that Li is joining the biotech at a “crucial time … as Ascletis R&D is moving from first-in-China to global first-in-class drugs.”

Ascletis has already bagged its first product approval in China for Ganovo (danoprevir), an NS3/4A protease inhibitor for hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection that is the first directly acting antiviral to be commercialized by a domestic company in China.

It has another HCV drug under regulatory review—NS5A inhibitor ravidasvir—which it hopes will strengthen its hand in the Chinese market for directly acting HCV drugs that is still growing quickly despite slowing down in other areas of the world.

Most of Ascletis’ near-term pipeline is directed firmly toward the domestic market, but Li’s longer-term challenge will be to help elevate Ascletis from a domestic to an international biopharma player. That means advancing in-house drugs for hepatitis B virus and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis into clinical development.

Ascletis was valued at around $2 billion after its initial public offering priced at the middle of an indicative range, but was swiftly brought down to earth by a steep decline in its shares and is now trading at around $7, around half its opening price.

“I am impressed by Ascletis' R&D strategy and accomplishments in the last few years,” said Li of his new employer. “I share Ascletis' vision to be one of the best R&D driven biotechs on a global scale. I look forward to working with Dr. Wu and the team to develop global first-in-class medicines for unmet medical needs in China and the rest of the world.”