After chiming in antibody to Covid-19 fight, Junshi drops $30M to kick off mRNA joint venture in China
A pioneering biotech in China has its eyes on mRNA.
Junshi Biosciences — which made its name as the first domestic drugmaker to steer a PD-(L)1 across the finish line at the NMPA — is teaming up with fellow Shanghai biotech Immorna on a joint venture that will be dedicated to both conventional non-replicating mRNA drugs and self-replicating versions.
The initial investment from Junshi comes in at around $30 million (RMB$200 million), a quarter of which will be used to buy up 50% of the JV, with the potential to inject up to $123 million total (RMB$799 million). What Immorna brings to the table is its platform, the value of which is estimated at RMB$50 million.
While the overwhelming successes of mRNA vaccines against Covid-19, both clinically and financially, have inspired a fervent search in the US and Europe for the next Moderna and BioNTech, Chinese investors and companies appear much less enthusiastic so far. The vaccines that have so far been approved and deployed in China are based on the much older approach of inactivated viruses.
But authorities have also signaled that mRNA could have a role to play, having initially supported homegrown efforts at Walvax. More recently, regulators completed a review of BioNTech’s vaccine — to be distributed by partners at Fosun — with the expectation that the country would need mRNA jabs as boosters, Caixin reported.
Through a partnership with Eli Lilly, Junshi has been involved in the pandemic fight by contributing an antibody, dubbed etesevimab, that was paired with AbCellera-discovered bamlanivimab.
The vision for the mRNA joint venture, though, goes much broader than Covid-19. What Junshi saw, in CEO Ning Li’s words, is the potential for mRNA industrialization — and solving problems on the global scale with Chinese IP. It’s a mission that Li has embraced since starting Junshi in 2012 following stints at the FDA and Sanofi’s regulatory department.
“As the mRNA Technology Platform gradually matures, its potential in a variety of fields — including infectious diseases, cancer, rare diseases, and other diseases — has become increasingly evident,” he said in a statement, adding that those therapeutic areas align with Junshi’s own R&D focus.
Founded in 2019, Immorna closed a modest Series A early this year and has since revealed a big-name deal with I-Mab, which was similarly interested in cancer. As BioNTech reminded the world in its recent acquisition of Kite’s TCR tech and manufacturing site, that can be a sizable opportunity for mRNA vaccines, too.
Immorna CEO Zihao Wang highlighted immunotherapy and infectious disease prevention as the main applications to explore initially.