HONG KONG South Korean biotech company Qurient Co. Ltd. has inked a joint venture (JV) foundation deal involving German companies Max Planck Society (MPG), of Munich, and Lead Discovery Center GmbH (LDC) in Dortmund, as well as the 1988 Nobel laureate and biochemist Robert Huber.
The JV aims to develop novel proteasome inhibitors for hematologic and solid tumors, as well as for autoimmune diseases, while enhancing the existing proteasome inhibitors' selectivity and improving their adverse effect profiles.
As well as investing in the new biotech, Huber, MPG and LDC have agreed to participate in the venture's technology development.
"Qurient will be the largest shareholder holding the majority position in the new venture. MPG, LDC and Professor Huber will also be founding shareholders," Kiyean Nam, CEO of the Seongnam-based Korean firm, told BioWorld.
Proteasomes are protein complexes that degrade unneeded or damaged proteins by proteolysis, a chemical reaction that breaks peptide bonds. The Korean company has agreed with MPG and LDC to secure the inhibition technology for optimizing a lead candidate.
Huber, also a professor at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, has solved the three-dimensional structure of proteasomes, leading to the discovery of the first-generation proteasome inhibitors. LDC, founded by MPG's technology transfer company, Max Planck Innovation, develops lead candidates followed by licensing-in new ventures.
"The venture's management will be established with biopharmaceutical professionals in Germany. . . Qurient will support this new venture in every aspect as a mother company, but the new venture will have an independent management team working on the best outcomes for the project," said Nam.
The joint venture plans to start operation in January 2020.
Qurient will initially fund the venture with around KRW4 billion (US$3.4 million) and then plans to lead the JV's series A investment from Korean and European sources as the company proceeds with pipeline development.
A Roivant-like strategy
Qurient's main business strategy is establishing multiple single-target spin-off companies, such as founding JV in Germany, with the aim of making profits via M&As involving the spin-offs.
That strategy references the business model of Roivant Sciences Ltd., a pharmaceutical company headquartered in Basel, Switzerland. Founded in 2014, Roivant has developed 16 spin-offs in the U.S. to focus on specific programs. Its main spin-offs include prostate cancer drug developer Myovant Sciences Inc., based in Brisbane, Calif., rare diseases therapy developer Enzyvant Inc., based in Durham, N.C., and neurology treatment developer Axovant Gene Therapies Ltd., in New York.
"Rather than adding new pipelines to itself, Qurient will set up single-asset companies like the Dortmund-based new venture," Nam said. "This process aims to successfully develop new drugs by raising decision-making efficiency, motivating employees and accelerating external investment. Also, as an exit plan, single-asset companies' M&As could be preferred by global pharmaceutical investment."
Qurient itself was founded as a spin-off from Institut Pasteur Korea, a Seongnam-based infectious disease-focused research institute.
Since it was established in 2008, Qurient has been developing five drug candidates in cancer treatment, antibiotics and anti-inflammation therapy. Its main candidate, telacebec (Q-203), is an orally active small-molecule candidate licensed from Institut Pasteur Korea. It blocks mycobacterium tuberculosis growth by inhibiting cytochrome bc1 complex, leading to the depletion of adenosine triphosphate synthesis by the bacterium.
The company announced telacebec's early bactericidal activity in June from a phase IIa trial in pulmonary tuberculosis testing three dosage levels (100 mg, 200 mg and 300 mg), which met the primary objective of rate of change in the time to positivity in sputum over days zero to 14. Data also demonstrated safety and good tolerability. The FDA has designated the therapy as an orphan drug and fast-tracked it.
Another lead candidate, Q-301, a topical 5-lipoxygenase (5LO) inhibitor, has achieved proof of concept in a phase IIa study in the U.S. targeting atopic dermatitis (AD). In that study, which enrolled 60 moderate to severe AD patients chosen by Investigator's Global Assessment (IGA) score, about 30% of Q-301-treated patients showed clear to almost clear (IGA grade 0 or 1, respectively) with at least two degrees of improvement. According to Qurient, it is significantly better than the placebo-treated group, which showed 4% of patients achieving the same degree of improvement. Q-301 is in a phase IIb study with 240 mild to moderate AD patients in the U.S.
"With its strong basic science and collaboration with world-renowned institutes, Qurient will grow as a global new drug developer," Jaehoon Shin, analyst at Hanwha Investment & Securities Co. Ltd., told BioWorld. "The company manages a stable portfolio with two lead drug candidates under clinical phase II, telacebec and Q-301, and others in early development stage. The well-balanced portfolio plan will facilitate the company's long-term development."
The remainder of the pipeline includes an Axl/Mer receptor tyrosine kinase/colony stimulating factor-1 receptor inhibitor, a selective CDK7 inhibitor and an oral 5LO inhibitor.