Chinese infectious disease biotech Ascletis nabs Novartis exec as CSO

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Chinese biotech Ascletis is hoping to become an international player, though trade tensions and political strife in China and Hong Kong are not making it easy. (Getty Images)

After poaching an ex-Merck exec to run its R&D, Chinese biotech Ascletis has raided another U.S. Big Pharma for its new chief scientific officer.

The company has poached Handan He, Ph.D., a 22-year veteran of Swiss major Novartis, as its new CSO. She was most recently the global head of computational, biopharmaceutics and translational PK/PD at Novartis where she managed scientific teams across the U.S. and Switzerland.

This comes half a year after Ascletis enticed another Big Pharma veteran to serve as its new CMO 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.

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

Most of Ascletis’ near-term pipeline is directed firmly toward the domestic market, but the biotech’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, which are the immediate tasks for He and Li.

Last year, Ascletis was valued at around $2 billion after its initial public offering priced at the middle of an indicative range, but it was swiftly brought down to earth by a steep decline that hit many companies trading in Hong Kong.

The biotech hit a high of 8.45 Hong Kong dollars ($1.08) a share in March after hiring Li but has steadily fallen over the following months, worth just over 3 Hong Kong dollars yesterday with a market cap of around $440 million.