Eager to think bigger than China, Ascletis woos top Merck exec to run R&D

Having paved the way in developing and commercializing China’s first home-cultivated hepatitis C drug — with some help from a multinational pharma partner — Ascletis has now set its sight on a higher goal: To move from first-in-China to global first-in-class drugs.

Highlighting its ambition, the Hangzhou-based biotech has scooped Zhengqing Li, who has run Merck’s drug development in China for the past eight years, to become its chief medical officer and president of R&D in the country.

At Merck $MRK, Li built and led a team of 600 that altogether nabbed more than 20 drug approvals — half of them in the past two years, a sign of the National Medical Products Administration’s willingness to speed up the regulatory process as part of ongoing reforms. In its announcement, Ascletis CEO Jinzi Wu not only nodded toward Li’s role in bringing to market antivirals like Zepatier, Isentress and Gardasil, but also the launch of Keytruda under his purview — signalling a new focus on immuno-oncology.

Jinzi Wu

That’s not been a key area for Ascletis, which has branded itself a leader in antiviral and liver diseases, recently launching Roche’s danoprevir as Ganovo in China and boasting other HCV, HBV, HIV and NASH programs in its pipeline. When the company spelled out how it would use its IPO proceeds in a listing application last May, there was no specific mention of its sole experimental cancer treatment, though other oncology drugs could be incoming as part of the 15% it has set aside to in-license new, unspecified drug candidates.

Despite raising $400 million on the Hong Kong stock exchange and making history as the first pre-revenue biotech listed there, though, Ascletis has been plunging considerably since its debut and is still trading at less than half its IPO price.

That’s all in the background today as the company gets ready to prove its value.

“I am impressed by Ascletis’ R&D strategy and accomplishments in the last few years,” Li said in a statement. “I share Ascletis’ vision to be one of the best R&D driven biotechs on a global scale.”

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
Director of Operations
Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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