Eli Lilly seeds a well-connected China neuro startup with drugs aiming at where Biogen, Voyager missed
When Min Li took the wraps off a $100 million round for his Bob Nelsen-backed startup last December — as with most biotech CEOs when they launch — he left a couple cards unturned.
Keen to build a first-of-its-kind neuro play in China, the GlaxoSmithKline R&D vet already had a good idea of which assets he wanted to in-license for SciNeuro, conducting Zoom negotiations from the East Coast office that he’s been somewhat stuck in since JP Morgan early in the year. Now, he’s finally ready to shine a spotlight on the first program: a slate of alpha-synuclein targeted antibody therapies from Eli Lilly.
If it works out, the now-preclinical assets would serve as an anchor to a first-in-class portfolio that eventually features homegrown meds SciNeuro is working on in-house.
That strategy has been working well in oncology, and Li sees no reason why they can’t make their mark in neuro — focusing on diseases like Parkinson’s and pain as well as rare genetic diseases.
Eli Lilly was among the first Big Pharma players to make a serious bet on a Chinese biotech company, engineering an R&D pact with Innovent in 2015, long before the antibody shop scored the second-ever approval for a made-in-China PD-1.
With SciNeuro, the deal is more straightforward. Lilly will receive an undisclosed upfront, milestones and royalties on any drug the biotech brings to the market in China, while retaining rest of world rights.
The target, alpha-synuclein, isn’t exactly novel. There’s plenty of literature indicating its “off the charts” connection to neurodegeneration, Li said. But AbbVie (in partnership with Voyager), Roche-partnered Prothena and Biogen have all run into setbacks trying to develop drugs against it.
For his part, Li — who ran GSK’s R&D group in Shanghai — sees it as a natural evolution where the next generation of drugs benefit from lessons around the first.
“We obviously could have — because of Biogen’s decision we could’ve made an alternative choice,” he said.
SciNeuro will be choosing among Parkinson’s, dementia with Lewy bodies and multi-system atrophy for the initial clinical trial.
Whichever indication they land with (and he’s comfortable with all 3), he believes they have a special advantage by moving first, in terms of patient choices, indications, and the way trials are set up, as well as clinical endpoints. There’s also the added benefit of patient density in China; Parkinson’s alone affects around 3 million people currently, with the number forecast to rise to 9 million by 2035 — a “pretty dramatic” need, according to Li.
To be sure, CNS is lagging quite a few years behind oncology, where the Chinese crew has matured so much that we’re starting to see what Li calls “reverse transactions,” in which multinationals source new cancer drugs from companies like Innovent, I-Mab and CStone.
“Maybe SciNeuro is not in a position doing that now,” he said. “But I won’t be surprised a couple years from now when we talk, we’re talking about a different direction.”