Johnson & Johnson allies with biotech startup on HIV drug in China

The biopharma startup Ascletis has snagged exclusive rights from Johnson & Johnson's ($JNJ) Janssen for an experimental HIV protease inhibitor for the China market. Hangzhou, China-based Ascletis aims to develop the candidate, called TMC310911, as an affordable and superior treatment for HIV patients in China, company CEO Jinzi Wu told FierceBiotech in an interview.

Wu, who formed Ascletis in 2011 after heading HIV drug development at GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), expects the market for HIV treatments in China to grow at more than 30% annually for the next several years, outstripping the expansion of the overall pharma market in China. With the licensing deal from Janssen, he says, Ascletis has the chance to be the first local company in China to develop, manufacture and sell an HIV protease inhibitor in the growing market. The company also has staff and operations in Research Triangle Park, NC.

"Right now, HIV treatment in China is really behind the U.S. for a number of reasons," Wu said.

Official estimates place the total population of HIV-infected people in China at 800,000, Wu said, but he and others believe that the population could be more than twice that number. The Chinese government pays for the majority of HIV treatments in the country, yet most patients have been unable to access some of the latest antivirals for their illness because of the cost of the drugs. Patients now take first-generation drugs for HIV that cost less than the newer pills.

To hear Wu, TMC310911 (which his company will classify as ASC-09) offers both a best-in-class HIV protease inhibitor and the opportunity to provide treatment at a price that fits health budgets in China. His plans call for selling the drug for $4,000 to $5,000 per year. In China, he said, AbbVie's ($ABBV) Kaletra is probably the most potent HIV protease inhibitor available. The drugs work by inhibiting the molecule that enables the virus to replicate.

Janssen, which has already developed TMC310911 through Phase II, stands to gain royalties from Ascletis on sales of the drug in Greater China. Janssen has kept its rights to the drug in all other markets. The companies did not reveal other financial details of the licensing deal.

Just two weeks ago Ascletis revealed a similar pact with Roche ($RHHBY) centered on a protease inhibitor called danoprevir for treating hepatitis C virus, building on the biotech startup's strategy to grab rights to late-stage products for development in China. Ascletis also has rights to an RNA-interference therapy for liver cancer from Alnylam ($ALNY).

Ascletis launched about two years ago with a $100 million venture round led by Hangzhou Binjiang Investment Holding, an operation formed by the Chinese real estate magnate Jinxing Qi.

- here's the release
- and here's a Triangle Business Journal story

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