BEIJING – Chinese startup Biotheus Inc., of Zhuhai, Guangdong, has its sights fixed on bispecific and multitarget antibodies to maximize drug efficacy. A biotech innovator based in the south of China, it gained support from local authorities that aim to create another biotech hub in the country.

Established in July 2018, Biotheus focuses on innovation to develop me-better and first-in-class antibodies, recombinant proteins and peptide drugs that target immuno-oncology and metabolic diseases. In June, Biotheus closed a pre-A financing round to raise $20 million, after securing $15 million from angel investors last year.

"Within a year and a half, we already have an asset that is IND-ready," Biotheus CEO Xiaolin Liu told BioWorld in an exclusive interview.

"Our first drug candidate, PM-8001, has completed CMC and is now in nonhuman primate pharmacokinetic and toxicity studies. We plan to submit an IND for this asset in early next year in China," he said.

The ambitious startup is also working to file an IND for one or two more drug candidates next year in China.

More targets, the better

Young and ambitious, Biotheus has an extensive pipeline that includes more than 10 drug candidates. Two are for metabolic diseases and the rest are targeting immuno-oncology.

But what truly differentiates Biotheus from its competitors in China is that it insists on developing innovative bispecific and multitarget antibodies.

"PD-1 and PD-L1 antibodies are clinically proven for their efficacy, but overall only around 20 percent of the patients are able to benefit from them," Liu explained.

"We do not focus on PD-1/PD-L1 monotherapies. There are too many similar programs in this space. Instead, we will develop bispecifics and multispecifics that target different checkpoints, including PD-1 and PD-L1. They are believed to be more efficacious and able to create synergy," he added.

Biotheus is led by Liu, who has more than 20 years of experience in the biopharma sector in the U.S and China. He recruited a team of scientists who share the same extensive experience in the industry, previously holding positions at global giants such as Abbott Laboratories, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Novartis AG and Adimab LLC, as well as domestic pioneers Yangtse River Pharmaceutical Group and Innovent Biologics Inc.

"Our team has comprehensive experience that covers every link in drug development, from early drug discovery to preclinical studies and commercialization," Liu said.

With his U.S. experience, Liu has a vision to make Biotheus more of a U.S. startup with a business model that is innovation-driven and open to partnerships with CROs or CMOs for commercialization.

"Chinese companies tend to do everything on their own, from drug development to manufacturing and commercialization. This leads to low capital efficiency. There has also been a trend to in-license assets from abroad into China, but we aim to discover and develop our own," he explained.

While most of the drug candidates are developed in-house, Biotheus also keeps a lookout for promising partners with applicable assets. This month, Biotheus inked a pact with Alligator Bioscience AB, of Lund, Sweden, to obtain rights to an antibody from the Swedish firm to create up to three bispecific molecules for mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau.

Under the terms, Biotheus will pay Alligator $1 million up front for the rights. The Swedish firm is also eligible to up-front, milestone and option fees of up to $142 million.

"Alligator originally met with Biotheus at a scientific conference and found a mutual interest and expertise in the development of bispecific antibodies within the field of immune-oncology," Anu Balendran, vice president of business development at Alligator, told BioWorld.

The southern pioneer

Biotheus chose to set up its base in the southern city of Zhuhai, instead of the bustling Shanghai, Suzhou or Hangzhou where many biotech startups are founded.

"A lot of companies are now based in these cities, forming a cluster like Boston. Although the Chinese government is giving very generous support to biotech companies, resources are limited to support that many startups," Liu said.

"The Guangdong province, on the other hand, has a robust economy and the biotech scene is just starting to thrive. Local authorities are very supportive for biotech startups," he added.

In the case of Biotheus, the local government in Zhuhai provided it with support, including a startup grant and subsidies for the laboratory .

Furthermore, the central government in Beijing is pushing ahead a development blueprint known as the Greater Bay Area in southern China to make it as competitive as the Bay Area in San Francisco. Health care is a key focus for development.

Liu said he believes the southern region has great potential to be the next biotech hub, a belief echoed by other industry leaders.

"Zhuhai is a core city of the Greater Bay Area development blueprint. It connects to the talent pool and market in the area and has an international setting that incubates world-class enterprises," said Jin Guo, CEO of Biotheus investor Zhuhai Huajin Capital Co. Ltd.

The promising picture of China's biotech development is giving Liu more confidence day by day about founding his own startup.

"Before 2010, biotech was not a hot area in China. But in recent years, the government has placed a great emphasis on this field, and there is no shortage of venture capital," Liu said. "Chinese patients are now able to afford better drugs too."

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