LONDON AstraZeneca (AZN.L) raised its bet on the Chinese drugs market on Monday by clinching a joint venture deal with local firm WuXi AppTec WX.N to develop a novel biotech medicine in the country, speeding its path to market.
The experimental treatment for rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases, known as MEDI-5117, is already in initial Phase I clinical development in the United States and Europe.
The partnership with WuXi will allow similar clinical tests in China, where the government requires local manufacture of medicines that have not been approved in other markets.
Bahija Jallal, head of research at AstraZeneca's biotech division MedImmune, said the move could see the drug launched four to six years earlier in China compared to the conventional route of getting an import licence after approval in the West.
The joint venture is the first of its kind for AstraZeneca and one of the first by an international company for a biotech drug in China.
"If it is successful, we hope this could be a good pathway for further molecules," Jallal told Reuters.
She added that MEDI-5117 had been chosen for the project since there was still a high unmet medical need for effective rheumatoid arthritis treatments in China and AstraZeneca believed its product had potential advantages over rivals.
China is a market of growing importance to all international drug companies - but AstraZeneca punches above it weight in the country, ranking number two in China among multinational pharmaceutical companies after Pfizer Inc (PFE.N).
AstraZeneca's sales in China grew 12 percent in the last quarter and the British-based company, which established its operation in China in 1993, sees the country as a critical part of its future growth.
WuXi will provide local regulatory, manufacturing, pre-clinical and clinical trial support for MEDI-5117, and the joint venture between the two firms will control the development of the experimental drug.
AstraZeneca will have the option to acquire the full rights to commercialise MEDI-5117, assuming it is successful in clinical development. Otherwise, the joint venture will have the right to market the product.
(Reporting by Ben Hirschler; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)