Brii Biosciences ramps up with VBI Vaccines partnership, new R&D headquarters

Brii aims to bring two partnered assets into the clinic in 2019. (Zhi Hong)

Brii Biosciences, a biotech that aims to improve public health in China, launched earlier this year with $260 million in committed capital and a trio of partnerships. Now, seven months down the line, Brii is expanding its collaboration with Vir Biotechnologies, inking a new hepatitis deal with VBI Vaccines and entering a public-private partnership with WuXi Biologics and Tsinghua University. It is also setting up a new R&D headquarters in Beijing that will employ up to 200 workers. 

Brii is handing over $11 million to VBI Vaccines—a $4 million upfront fee and a $7 million equity investment—in a license and collaboration agreement, but the latter could receive up to $117.5 million in milestones, not to mention royalties from sales in China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Under the deal, the partners will work on a functional cure for hepatitis B using VBI’s recombinant, protein-based immuno-therapeutic, VBI-2601. It is designed to target both B-cell and T-cell immunity and could potentially induce and sustain broad immunity against the hepatitis B virus.

The partners will develop VBI-2601 through a proof-of-concept clinical trial in China, after which Brii will bankroll development in the licensed territory. VBI will hold onto the commercial rights of the product outside of Greater China.

RELATED: GlaxoSmithKline veteran Zhi Hong launches Brii Biosciences with $260M 

While the VBI deal is new, the other two build on previous deals. At launch, Brii announced a collabs with Alibaba on digital approaches for the development and delivery of new drugs and with WuXi for access to WuXi AppTec and WuXi Biologics' R&D capabilities. It also signed on to license up to four assets from Vir Biotechnologies. 

Now, Brii and Vir will start developing an RNA interference (RNAi) drug dubbed VIR-2218, which is designed to block expression of all hepatitis B virus proteins. As for Brii’s new partnership with WuXi and Tsinghua University, the trio will focus on bispecific antibodies to treat infectious diseases and immunologic disorders. 

“In China, there is a great need to improve the treatment of infectious diseases and a vast opportunity to transform care for patients through therapies that inhibit or modulate the host immune responses,” said Professor Chen Dong, Dean of the School of Medicine and Director of the Institute for Immunology at the Tsinghua University, in the statement. “We are delighted to embark on a research program that leverages WuXi’s leading-edge capabilities and Brii Bio’s target insight so that we can bring forward innovative immune therapies that may reach millions of people in our country and beyond.” 

Since launch, said Brii CEO Zhi Hong, the company has met with scores of potential partners, and there more partnerships will come. But even as its $260 million war chest provides significant runway, Brii is picking its partners and therapeutic areas judiciously. When asked how many assets would be Brii’s sweet spot, or how many disease areas it wants to get into, Hong said it depends.

There’s no strict number, “the sky’s the limit,” he said. What’s important is that the treatment is differentiated, and has a clear path from the development stage to commercialization in China.

“The way I want this company to go is not to just look at the opportunity in front of you, but to also think about downstream, in terms of how we provide access [to patients]. That’s what’s driving us—addressing unmet need,” he said. 

“We’re not going to get into oncology without seriously thinking about it,” Hong said. He wants to avoid what he calls the “me-too” stuff, such as PD-1 and PD-L1 inhibitors, a space that has seen outsize interest in recent years, with companies throwing combinations at the clinic to see what sticks. 

So what comes next for Brii? The company hopes to get both VIR-2218 and VBI-2601 into the clinic in 2019, said Hong, an 11-year veteran of GlaxoSmithKline, where he led the Big Pharma’s infectious disease business. He also wants to ink a deal in a non-infectious disease area, though he can’t say yet what that might be.