There was a unique ribbon cutting ceremony this summer at Carnegie Center where Sandoz used to be located. Another pharmaceutical company was moving into the office to take its place, but Hengrui Therapeutics wasn’t like most of the other biotech firms in the area. In fact, it is the first major China-based pharma company to set up shop in the Route 1 corridor.

Hengrui is technically an independent company based in Carnegie, but its major shareholder is Jiangsu Hengrui Medicine, which also funded generic drug specialist firm eVenus (also located in Carnegie Center.) Another Jiangsu subsidiary is Eternity Bioscience, an R&D lab founded in 2009 and based on Eastpark Boulevard in Cranbury. Jiangsu is a $14 billion firm based in Linayungang, China.

Adam Zong, CEO of Hengrui Therapeutics, says his company has access to Jiangsu’s entire research pipeline, whether generated at Eternity or any of Jiangsu’s other labs around the world. “They have invested heavily in R&D over the last decade,” Zong says. “They wanted to set something up as part of their globalization strategy, and this company is the result of that thinking.”

Zong says Hengrui will license products that are currently in various stages of animal or human trials, or which are already in use in China, and bring them to the American and European markets.

Zong says the company’s most promising line of research is in small-molecule targeted therapies that are designed to fight certain cancer agents that play a role in tumor development.

One of the drugs currently in development is a Tyrosine-kinase inhibitor that inhibits enzymes responsible for cancer formation.

Hengrui is also working on an antibody-drug conjugate — a kind of anti-cancer therapy that targets and kills only cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone. Hengrui’s drug is designed to disrupt tumors’ ability to conceal themselves from the human immune system. “We have a molecule that would actually disrupt the disguise and therefore fully expose the cancer cells for our immune systems to attack,” Zong says.

The drug had been very effective in animal trials and is expected to soon move on to human trials, Zong says. Both therapies could be combined with other cancer treatments to provide a higher chance of success.

Zong said the company would also soon announce treatments aimed at treating both obesity and diabetes.“Jiangsu Hengrui made innovative R&D investments more than 15 years ago, and now is the time when they reap the benefit of that investment.”

Hengrui Therapeutics’ task is to test those treatments to make sure they are safe and effective to the satisfaction of regulators in the U.S. and Europe, an enormously expensive task. This summer, the company was funded with a $100 million investment from its Chinese parent company combined with other unnamed investors. Zong expects to have about 40 or 50 people working at the headquarters by the end of the year.

“We aspire to become a fully integrated biopharmaceutical company in five to ten years’ time,” Zong says. “Given our rate of growth, we are looking at the possibility of becoming one of the major contributors of high end jobs in biotech pharma in the area. Given our ambition I would think we would be able to be a contender on the world stage. By the end of next year we will probably have six to eight clinical stage assets. Not too shabby by any standard.”

Zong is driven by more than just corporate ambition. He grew up in China, where his parents were chemistry professors, and was on a campus for much of his childhood. He studied genetic engineering at Fudan University in China, and earned a doctorate in oncology and virology at Rockefeller University in New York. He also has an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

In his long pharmaceutical career Zong has worked for Merck, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Schering-Plough, and Pfizer.

At Merck he was responsible for the oncology licensing group, which looked for promising cancer treatment acquisitions. At Schering-Plough he worked to commercialize Temozolomide, a brain cancer treatment for which Zong still holds a patent. Zong says he has personally met people who were helped by the drugs he helped bring to market, and that his work is motivated by helping fight cancer and other diseases.

“My work is meaningful because it does impact patients,” Zong says.

Hengrui’s logo is taken from the i-Ching, a mystical Chinese text that is used for fortune telling. Zong says the hexagram symbol, which looks like an H in the Latin alphabet, stands for “persevering in the pursuit of heaven on the right course.”

“People perceive us as a Chinese company, but to me it doesn’t really matter,” he says. “I think our effort is part of the joint effort of mankind to fight against cancer. Our efforts transcend national boundaries and differences between races and peoples. It is our joint effort against diseases, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

— Diccon Hyatt

Hengrui Therapeutics Inc., 506 Carnegie Center, Suite 102, Princeton 08540. 609-423-2155. Adam Zong, CEO. www.hengruitherapeutics.com.

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