Going to China? ADC Therapeutics spotlights a new way to do it with Hillhouse-backed Overland
Chris Martin and his crew at ADC Therapeutics went into the JP Morgan Healthcare conference this January armed with positive pivotal data for its lead antibody-drug conjugate, loncastuximab tesirine. Having focused its development program exclusively in the US and Europe, it was time to find a Chinese partner.
The search, which stretched out over the next few months, culminated in six term sheets, from large pharma, oncology specialists and all. But one bidder stood out: Overland Pharma, the fledgling platform play co-founded by venture partners at Hillhouse Capital, a marquee VC firm Martin has come to respect.
“It was a completely different structure,” he told Endpoints News.
Instead of simply licensing lonca, Overland proposed starting a joint venture — one ADCT would own 49% of — to house the Greater China and Singapore rights to a total of four ADCs in the Swiss biotech’s portfolio, with $50 million in upfront investment from Hillhouse. The team of 30-plus Overland staffers would initially shoulder much of the local development and regulatory work, both starting bridging studies designed specifically for the licensed territories and looping them into global trials. ADC will send the same number of reps to the board of directors as Overland.
As the biopharma world learned last week with Overland’s debut, the startup is pitching itself as a springboard for Western drug developers to bring not just products, but their cutting-edge technologies to China through platform plays.
To be sure, joint ventures in China are nothing new. In the most prominent example, CAR-T pioneers Kite, Juno and the lesser known Singaporean cell therapy biotech Tessa have all set up JVs with local companies — albeit going with hefty, established players in the pharma scene.
On the surface, Overland is more like Zai Lab, Everest Medicines or even Perceptive’s LianBio in that it’s smaller and built explicitly to source foreign innovation into China. But behind it is an extensive ecosytsem, from a network of CROs and manufacturers to a commercial sales force, that Hillhouse has assembled over the years.
Both partners have ambitious goals for Overland ADCT Biopharma, which Martin envisions growing into a standalone company with multibillion market cap that can file for an IPO on the Hong Kong stock exchange in a few years’ time.
“We’ve been following in on the landscape of ADC closely,” Overland CMO and interim CEO Hua Mu said. “We know it’s an evolving technology particularly over the recent 2 years.”
But the overwhelming majority of programs are focused on solid tumors, added Ed Zhang, the COO and CBO. You can find 10 or 12 different ADCs targeted at HER2, but lonca and other drugs from ADCT (namely ADCT-602, ADCT-601 and ADCT-901) would be the first compounds tagged with a pyrrolobenzodiazepine-based payload aimed at hematological indications.
In the lead indication of third-line relapsed/refractory diffuse large B cell lymphoma, lonca spurred an overall response rate of 48.3%. Given that the 5-year survival for DLBCL in China is 38% compared to 68% in the US and Europe, Mu added, the drug would fill a huge gap.
While ADCT is supplying the initial trial material so that they can move as fast as possible, there are tech transfer plans to eventually enable manufacturing in China — both for domestic use and beyond.
“It’s more like a stepwise or two-step approach,” Mu said.
From Lausanne, Switzerland, Martin noted he’s been communicating with Boston-based Zhang, Seattle-based Mu and the team in China via “hundreds of Zoom calls and Teams calls” as well as photos.
It helped that he’s met the founders as well as the broader Hillhouse team, he said. In fact, they were so keen not to lose time that ADCT started working with Overland before formally putting the JV together.
“I think you learn to trust people by seeing whether they do what they say. I think that’s a two-way street,” he said. “I must say I’ve been extremely impressed by the Overland team, not just the leadership team but the 30 people that they have working with them. They’ve been very responsive, they’ve got on well with our — well, we have quite demanding clinical development and CMC teams, they’ve got on well and been responsive and they’ve moved forward, effectively done what they say they would do.”