China’s life science ecosystem is booming thanks to a rich pool of talent, strong support from government and private enterprises, and integration with the wider global life science ecosystem. China is also one of the most critical markets for Johnson & Johnson Innovation’s Asia Pacific Innovation Center in the region.
We sat down with Dr. Mingde Xia, Senior Director of New Ventures, Greater China, Johnson & Johnson Innovation, who was also one of the first members of the Innovation Center, to understand what the trends and opportunities are for life sciences in Greater China, as well as what the Innovation Center is focused on in the China market to unlock potential opportunities.
Q1. The Asia Pacific Innovation Center has facilitated many strategic collaborations with local partners in Greater China. Can you share with us some of the key collaborations?
The Asia Pacific Innovation Center is leveraging its scale, reach, and expertise to support and engage with local innovators in China. We have built strong foundations for collaboration in the local market and are delighted by the many strategic partnerships we have established to nurture the local biotech ecosystem.
Most recently, we facilitated a research collaboration between Janssen Biotech, Inc. (Janssen) and HitGen Inc. (Hitgen) to discover unique small molecule assets to be used in drug discovery and development. Under the agreement, Janssen will leverage HitGen’s novel technology to build DNA-encoded libraries that will be exclusive and proprietary to Janssen. This will help us find targets across our various therapeutic areas that have been difficult to identify with traditional screening approaches.
Another example is a strategic CAR-T collaboration in December 2017 where the Asia Pacific Innovation Center facilitated a worldwide collaboration and license agreement between Janssen and Nanjing Legend, an innovative Chinese biotech company that has developed a differentiated CAR-T therapy. Their therapy has shown promising results in early-stage multiple myeloma trials conducted in China. Janssen is leveraging our global expertise in drug development to help advance the CAR-T candidate, which was the first CAR-T treatment to be accepted for review by the National Medical Products Administration (formerly the China Food and Drug Administration).
Vision Care is another area with huge unmet needs in China. In 2018, we facilitated a collaboration between Johnson & Johnson Vision and Hong Kong Polytechnic University on a clinical study to control myopia progression in a group of Hong Kong Chinese myopic children aged 8-13 years. This new study will complement Johnson & Johnson Vision’s existing body of myopia research, and has the potential to reduce the rate of myopia progression.
These examples are just a few of many other diverse cross-sector collaborations we have entered recently. We are focusing on many potential opportunities in pharmaceutical, medical devices and consumer sectors; plus, cross-sector opportunities in lung cancer, and disruptive technologies based on genomics/proteomics, chronic disease management, mobile health, big data and artificial intelligence (AI) from China.
Q2. What do you look for when evaluating whether to enter into a collaboration or not? What are the Innovation Center’s focus areas in China?
At the Asia Pacific Innovation Center, we believe that a great idea can come from anywhere, that no single company has a monopoly on innovation, and no single company can do it alone. We need collaborative partners.
When considering areas of collaboration, we consider three major criteria:
- Does it have an unmet need? We want to make a transformational difference for patients and customers, so we’re looking for areas where the need is big, and where we can make a major difference.
- How promising and unique is the science or technology? Is it first-in-class or best-in-class? It might be very exciting science but if it is being worked on by dozens of other companies, then we must ask ourselves if we’ll really be able to make a difference.
- Is it one of the strategic focus areas of Johnson & Johnson’s business sectors? We are looking for transformational ideas that align with priorities across our pharmaceutical, consumer and medical device businesses. In each category, we focus on specific areas of interest that have the greatest potential to improve the lives of patients and consumers.
Q3. What are some of the future developments and trends in China that excite you the most?
China is a very dynamic country. The life science landscape has developed very quickly due to more and more returnees from Western countries, and ample government and venture capital support. We are paying special attention to developments in oncology including cell therapy, gene therapy, microbiome, immunology, AI and big data, and innovative business models.
CAR-T is one example of how fast the area of cell therapy is developing. Currently, China and the USA account for about 85% of all the CAR-T clinical studies in the world. We see a lot of ongoing research in this area. As I mentioned already, we are at the forefront of this wave, as we are working on identifying the next generation of CAR-T therapy.
Immuno-oncology therapies are an exciting approach to treating cancer by harnessing a patient’s own immune system to attack tumors, potentially resulting in a durable response. Our goal is to develop personalized medicine approaches using immuno-oncology therapies. We would like to collaborate with external partners to evaluate the most effective ways of combining immuno-oncology therapy drugs, identify biomarkers and explore the biological mechanisms behind drug resistance.
Recently we’ve noticed a lot of companies exploring different application opportunities for AI and big data in pharma and related areas. China’s 2030 Plan sets ambitious goals for AI, and a lot of funding has been allocated to support development in this technology. We look forward to seeing more application of these technologies, especially in drug discovery and development.
The Guangdong Greater Bay Area that makes up Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Macao and Hong Kong is up and coming for world-class innovation. As the Greater Bay Area continues to develop, we look forward to working with the best minds from its universities and research institutions, as well as start-ups to build an international science and technology innovation hub along the axis of Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong.
Q4. What do you think are some of the biggest healthcare innovation challenges and opportunities of the biotech ecosystem in China?
The drug discovery process itself is challenging. It is a high-risk process that takes a lot of time, manpower and investment. It is very challenging for any single company to allocate all these resources into the discovery of one drug. That’s why we need academia, industry, venture capitals, hospitals and government to work together.
In China, we have seen how multidisciplinary scientific and technological innovation is expanding the frontier of what is possible with human health.
We envision a world without disease and are actively pursuing exciting new areas of science. Advances in AI, data science, regenerative medicine, gene therapy, microbiome science and robotics are among the many areas that are coming together to create new solutions to healthcare challenges.
 CAR-T Cells: A Systematic Review and Mixed Methods Analysis of the Clinical Trial Landscape, Volume 26, Issue 2, 7 February 2018, Pages 342-353, retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1525001617305567