A new U.S.-China drug discovery deal focused on developing bispecific therapies for cancer could bring Woburn, Mass.-based Abpro Therapeutics Inc. as much $4 billion, including $60 million in near-term R&D funding from its Chinese partner, NJCTTQ, a subsidiary of Nanjing Chia Tai Tianqing Pharmaceutical Group Co. Ltd. Outside of China and Thailand, Abpro will retain all commercial rights for any approved molecules, while NJCTTQ will retain rights in China.

Abpro, which is leveraging its Diversimmune antibody discovery platform for T-cell engagement, is also eligible to receive potential milestones and royalties. Its 30-person team will collaborate globally with NJCTTQ to pursue preclinical and clinical development efforts and, ultimately, commercialization, it said.

Ian Chan, Abpro's executive chairman, president and co-founder, told BioWorld Asia the partnership "will allow us to progress our pipeline very rapidly and also diversify it," while providing the company with a "tremendous amount of resources." The outsize value of the potential payouts for Abpro represent both the value of the platform and the size of the potential market, Chan said.

Founded in 1969, Lianyungang, China-based CTTQ already markets multiple antiviral, oncology and respiratory health products. In its courtship with the NJCTTQ, Chan said his team found a company that was "extremely interesting" based on its capabilities and ambitions as well as an organization with extensive distribution capabilities that will allow for joint coverage of "the entire value chain, from target ID all the way down to sales and marketing."

Under terms of the deal, the partners will work together to develop a yet-to-be-determined number of bispecific T-cell engagers which, due to their design, may offer improved specificity and longer half-lives than current bispecifics. "If you look at the first-generation format, it has been effective, but the half-life in patients generally has been just several hours, so the patient has to continuously be in the hospital to receive the drug," Chan said. Diversimmune-sourced antibodies can be both more potent with half-lives of two to three weeks, he said, meaning that they could support less frequent dosing.

Under the governance of joint steering committee, Abpro will carry each program in the deal up to phase I before handing it off to NJCTTQ to handle global clinical testing. Expectations for the work ahead suggest that the first candidate to reach the clinic is likely to arrive in 2020.

Abpro, which last year filed for and rapidly withdrew plans for an IPO, already has a track record of collaborations with companies, including Glaxosmithkline plc, Astrazeneca plc's Medimmune Inc. and Essex Bio-Investment Ltd. At the end of 2017, it also arranged to work with China-based Luye Pharma Group Ltd. to develop and commercialize bispecific antibodies for immuno-oncology applications.

As explained in its S-1 filing, Abpro's Diversimmune platform consists of three key steps, each focused on generating "a diverse collection of high-quality antibodies." In the first step, the company uses a collection of immunization methods to elicit a strong and diverse immune response. It then uses its Immunomax mouse model, along with a variety of co-stimulation methods, to optimize the immune response to each target. Finally, it uses processes of humanization and optimization to provide building blocks that can be assembled into therapies using its Multimab antibody engineering platform. (See BioWorld Today, Dec. 5, 2016.)

In addition to working with partners, Abpro is advancing its own pipeline of Diversimmune-derived candidates, led by ABP-100, a program nearing phase I testing in breast and gastric cancers.