CAR T therapy developer JW Therapeutics Co. Ltd. launched a HK$2.325 billion (US$300 million) IPO in Hong Kong by issuing 97.7 million shares at HK$23.8 apiece on Nov 3. The listing is set to help the company’s  march toward the goal of winning the first CAR T product approval in China.

The IPO was sponsored by Goldman Sachs and UBS. Like other pre-revenue biotech IPOs, JW Therapeutics’ offering attracted an oversubscription of 450 times for its retail tranche. This is the second cell therapy company to post a listing in Hong Kong, after Immunotech Biopharm Ltd.’s $142 million IPO in July, which was also well-received.

“Listing on HKEX marks a very important milestone for JW Therapeutics,” said CEO James Li. “With a cutting-edge technology platform and research capabilities, we look forward to continuing to invest in driving the full-scale commercialization of our core product candidates, advancing and expanding our pipelines, and enhancing our manufacturing and supply chain through innovation and scale.”

Prior to the IPO, Shanghai-based JW Therapeutics completed a $100 million series B in June and a $90 million series A in 2018. The company was created under a partnership between Juno Therapeutics Inc., of Seattle (now part of Bristol Myers Squibb Co.), and Shanghai-based contract research service platform Wuxi Apptec in February 2016 to focus on cell-based immunotherapy.

Following the IPO, JW Therapeutics intends to use 40% of the proceeds to advance its core product candidate, relma-cel (relmacabtagene autoleucel). Another 34% of the proceeds will support the ongoing R&D of other candidates, such as JWCAR-129, JWATM-203, JWATM-204 and Nex-G. The firm will also set aside 16% of the proceeds to license promising assets to expand its pipeline. 

The company’s hopes for a profit are riding on relma-cel, as it recorded losses of ¥633.3 million (US$94.63 million) in 2019. Relma-cel is an autologous anti-CD19 CAR T therapy candidate for third-line treatment for relapsed or refractory B-cell lymphoma. It is based on the same CAR construct as Juno’s product, lisocabtagene maraleucel (liso-cel), which is pending approval by the FDA. JW Therapeutics in-licensed it from Juno for China, Hong Kong and Macau.

In China, drug regulators accepted the NDA for relma-cel in June as a third-line treatment for diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, then granted it priority review status in September and breakthrough therapy designation as a treatment for follicular lymphoma. The company hopes relma-cel to be the first CAR T therapy approved in China.

The company is also developing relma-cel as a treatment for other indications, including mantle cell lymphoma, acute lymphoblastic leukemia and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

CAR T therapy is a hot research area in China, but the country has yet to approve any products. A strong competitor for relma-cel is Shanghai-based Fosun Kite Biotechnology Co. Ltd.’s FKC-876, another CD19-directed CAR T-cell therapy treating the same indication as relma-cel, which is already marketed as Yescarta (axicabtagene ciloleucel) in the U.S. and EU. Chinese regulators accepted the NDA filing for FKC-876 in February and granted it priority review a month later.

According to Frost & Sullivan, the size of the China CAR T market is expected to be ¥24.3 billion by 2030, at a CAGR of 28.7% from 2024.

On Tuesday, JW Therapeutics’ stock price slipped below its offer price in the morning, and ended up closing 7.5% lower at HK$22 at its debut.

“Sales for the domestic market are limited and [JW Therapeutics] has no global rights,” Kai Sun, an analyst from Shanghai-based Green River Investment, explained to BioWorld about the disappointing performance.

Next-generation CAR T

While the main priority is winning the first approval in China, JW Therapeutics is also expanding its pipeline to consolidate its leading position in China’s CAR T therapy market. Currently, it has seven product candidates in its pipeline.

Other key programs in blood cancer are JWCAR-129, an anti-BMCA autologous CAR T product for treating relapsed and refractory multiple myeloma, at the IND-enabling stage, and Nex-G, an anti-CD19 product candidate for non-Hodgkin lymphoma that is in preclinical testing. Both candidates were obtained from the partnership with Juno Therapeutics.

“We are developing a set of new technologies and platforms to enable the next-generation CAR T product and manufacturing processes with shorter production cycle time, higher quality, better product characterization, and improved product efficacy and safety, at a lower cost,” the company said. “We believe that this will establish the foundation for our next-generation autologous anti-CD19 product, as well as other products in our pipeline.”

JW Therapeutics also has plans to move into solid tumors. It has JWATM-203, an autologous TCRm T-cell therapy targeting AFP, and JWATM-204, an autologous T-cell therapy candidate targeting GPC3, for hepatocellular carcinoma, both licensed from Eureka Therapeutics Inc.

JW Therapeutics has obtained access to Eureka’s Artemis technology platform that facilitates T-cell infiltration into solid tumors. It is partnering with Lyell Immunopharma Inc. to combine Lyell’s technology with the Artemis platform to develop next-generation autologous cell therapies for hepatocellular carcinoma.

Looking ahead, JW Therapeutics may use the IPO proceeds to license in more assets. It now has seven candidates in mind that it could bring in, which are from either Juno or U.S.-Taiwan biotech Acepodia Inc. Two are indicated for blood cancer, and the rest are for solid tumors. In the long run, the Chinese firm hopes to conduct in-house product discovery with the Artemis technology platform.