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Moving from botanics, Hutchison China MediTech pegs success on new cancer drug

Hutchison China MediTech Ltd. started in 2000 as part of Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka Shing's initiative to develop drugs based on traditional plant-based Chinese medicines.

But 17 years on it is seeing positive results in a different arena — synthetic, chemical drugs.

Its metastatic bowel cancer drug fruquintinib met primary and secondary endpoints in March, making it one of the first oncology drugs discovered and developed in China to clear the phase 3 trial stage.

It is also partnering with AstraZeneca PLC to develop lung cancer drug savolitinib, which could become the first drug from a Chinese company to receive approval for the global market, eyeing peak sales of around $1.5 billion.

In an interview with S&P Global Market Intelligence, Hutchison China MediTech CEO Christian Hogg spoke about the company's oncology pipeline.

Hutchison China MediTech has come a long way from botanicals; the change in its development focus came about with Weiguo Su joining as chief scientific officer in 2005.

"Dr. Su came to us from Pfizer Ltd.'s oncology and immunology organization," Hogg said. "When he joined, he proposed that we look beyond botanical medicine and start development in small molecule synthetic targeted therapy for oncology and immunology.

"This branched us off into the business we are now, with eight oncology drug candidates in over 30 clinical trials around the world."

Looking at the Hong-Kong based company's current product pipeline, the number of oncology drugs in clinical trials has ballooned since 2015, which Hogg attributed to the successful proof of concept studies conducted by the company.

"For the last two years we've had 100% strike rate in proof of concept studies and when you have those results, all indications move on to phase 3 trials. By the end of 2017 we will have eight drugs in phase 3 studies, all enrolling," Hogg said.

"We design small molecule synthetic chemical structures that bind to proteins involved in cell signaling that causes cancer cell proliferation. If the drug binds to the protein, it essentially shuts off the cancer cells. The approach is very specific to a particular type of mutation in tumor cells," he added.

Partnering with AstraZeneca

AstraZeneca, which recently received China FDA approval for its lung cancer drug Tagrisso, has partnered with Hutchison China MediTech in the development of lung cancer drug savolitinib.

Savolitinib is expected to complete the phase 2b trial soon and progress to phase 3, Hogg said, without giving details on the exact timeline.

Annually, 1.7 million people across the globe are diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer, or NSCLC. Among them, 30% have epidermal growth factor receptor, or EGFR, gene mutations and are typically given AstraZeneca's Iressa in first-line therapy.

However, it is common for patients with a T790M mutation to develop resistance against these agents. Tagrisso is effective for 45% of the resistant patients that did not respond to Iressa in second-line therapy. Of those resistant to Iressa, 16% have a mutation driven by the c-MET positive protein, and it is this population that is set to benefit from savolitinib.

"[AstraZeneca] selected us out of all the people in the world working on c-MET inhibitors. They came to China and told us they like our product above everybody else's on the market. The decision was science driven as currently, there are no treatments for these patients.

"Our drug has around $1.5 billion peak sales potential just for c-MET positive NSCLC, and we're hoping by the end of the year we have sufficient evidence to submit for an accelerated approval to the U.S. FDA," Hogg said.

But investing in drug companies can be risky business.

"Most investors in the biotech space live in a permanent state of fear because of the money involved. We have invested over $400 million in the last 17 years," Hogg said.

However, Hutchison China MediTech is not a so-called "binary biotech," the CEO pointed out. It has "a powerful commercial operation in China that's worth $1.8 billion."

Hogg was also optimistic about the company's product pipeline.

It has eight drug candidates in the pipeline, of which fruquintinib has already received approval. And if the U.S. FDA approves savolitinib as a second-line therapy for c-MET positive lung cancer, Hogg said it could be the "first drug coming out of China to get approved for the global market."