Novartis is calling it curtains on early drug discovery at its R&D site in Shanghai in a companywide move to “rebalance” its discovery and early development efforts. The company plans to add more than 300 new jobs in the coming years but will be bidding adieu to about 150 early discovery personnel, Jay Bradner, M.D., president of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR), told FierceBiotech.
The Shanghai site, known as CNIBR, is home to more than 1,000 staffers across Novartis’ R&D, pharma, oncology and generics businesses. It has been a “highly productive discovery engine that’s specialized in first-in-class medicines and undruggable targets,” Bradner said. But the maturation of the Big Pharma’s discovery efforts means it now needs more boots on the ground to develop those prospects. And the evolution of the Chinese regulatory system—not to mention an “explosion of talent” that former CEO Joe Jimenez highlighted years ago—makes Shanghai the best place to expand its early development team.
“Our need to better resource early drug development globally, combined with important changes to the drug development and commercialization landscape in China, have converged on the decision to pivot from drug discovery in Shanghai to early drug development,” Bradner said. CNIBR is the only R&D site to make this pivot; Novartis’ other sites in Basel, Switzerland, Cambridge in Massachusetts, and Emoryville and La Jolla, both in California, will continue their discovery efforts.
“The new direction for Novartis in China is driven by the maturation of the Chinese life sciences sector and regulatory system, the emerging impressive innovation potential of entrepreneurial biomedicine in China and our own need to rebalance drug development and discovery,” Bradner said.
The development team at CNBIR will work on a mix of programs discovered in China and at Novartis’ other R&D sites across the U.S. and Europe. This includes completely new drugs as well as candidates that are approved elsewhere, but not yet available in China.
“Regrettably, this strategic decision will impact 150 associates who work in early discovery research. We therefore don’t take decisions like this likely,” Bradner said. With the growth of the life sciences ecosystem in Shanghai, Bradner expects these drug hunters to be “avidly recruited” by biotech and pharma companies.
The company will add 340 development and commercial jobs by 2023, Bradner said. It also plans to file 50 new drug applications in China.
“We have observed some truly catalytic events in the last few years,” he said. “The Chinese government’s commitment to regulatory reform has improved access to medicines but also opens new opportunities for first-in-human and first-in-class innovative medicines to reach Chinese patients faster. China is already the second largest pharmaceutical market in the world and represents a significant part of Novartis’ growth plan.”
Novartis won’t shut the door on a possible return to discovery in Shanghai: “I would never rule this out. However, today, the strong demand for talent and investment in drug development is our focus,” Bradner said. It may turn to partnerships or acquisitions to access discovery research in China, he said.
The company has an “ambitious plan” to connect with young biotechs in China: “Over the next several months, we will commit our first investment totaling about $35 million with Shanghai-based venture capital firms … We have and will further expand our business development team in Shanghai to work shoulder-to-shoulder with disruptive innovators in China.”