Deals, Startups

Eli Lilly hands transpacific biotech upstart Terns pieces to an experimental NASH puzzle

Weidong Zhong

For Weidong Zhong, the fastest part of starting up a transpacific biotech was finding the money.

Almost immediately after stepping out of Novartis’ early-stage research group a year ago, the longtime investigator with a background that includes a stint involving liver diseases at Gilead had the enthusiastic backing of Lilly Asia Ventures, a busy venture group which provided the $30 million needed to get going.

“They very much liked the idea,” Zhong tells me. “We didn’t even have time to disclose that (Series A) because everything happened so quickly.”

Now, the rest of it is coming together quickly as well, with a pipeline that’s being swelled today by an in-licensing deal with Eli Lilly delivering three programs for NASH. So it’s a good time, Zhong feels, to make the debut they had missed a year ago.

The basic idea at Terns Pharmaceuticals was that a California-based discovery team allied with a small development group in China could assemble a pipeline and efficiently develop new drugs primarily for the Chinese market.

“We can shorten the time it takes to develop drugs for the China market,” says the CEO, who feels they are well positioned to translate the rapidly improving regulatory process in China. Eli Lilly plans to learn from their progress.

With an intro from their colleagues at Lilly Asia Ventures, they were able to ink an agreement with the mother company that covers a clinical-stage farnesoid X receptor (FXR) agonist, TERN-101, a semicarbazide-sensitive amine oxidase (SSAO) inhibitor, TERN-201 — which is nearing IND submission — and an undisclosed preclinical candidate. And they are combining the NASH work with oncology, building on the 5 programs pieced together by their in-house group in Shanghai.

101 seems well designed to advance in China, says the scientist, as the various players begin to assemble the unique combinations that he believes will be needed to address various stages of NASH, as well as possibly different genetic groups. 201, though, he believes has the kind of first-in-class potential that they could work on for both the US and the Chinese markets simultaneously.

The move to out license drugs pointed primarily to China comes about a year after Lilly opted to shut down its R&D base in Shanghai, following a pattern of big pharma exits that also included GSK. Lilly now is focusing on alliances like this one to advance new drugs in the booming Asian market.

Zhong likes the idea of going back into liver diseases and matching it with oncology as a good way of distinguishing the startup in a booming Chinese biotech field. And he has every intention of staying in the fast lane.

Their projection for the SSAO drug is to get it into the clinic in early 2019, with a shot at completing the proof-of-concept stage in 2021 that could — if everything works out — leave them on the threshold of a late-stage program.

That’s ambitious for a company that currently totals about 15 full timers, plus CRO help. But Zhong feels that the company can operate like the small, tough little water bird it’s named after, built for long migrations. 

They may be small, but Terns plans to go far.

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

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