Her experience in banking and consultancy helped C4XD strategy chief Bhavna Hunjan to build a team that drives corporate development through partnerships, with a focus on attractive preclinical data packages to out-license to pharmaceutical companies.
Many life sciences companies have struggled to attract and retain talent which can offer the broad range of skills and experience needed to drive change in the sector but C4X Discovery Holdings plc (C4XD) landed on its feet with Bhavna Hunjan, the UK group's head of corporate strategy and development.
Which is just as well given that her remit at C4XD is extensive. Speaking to In Vivo, Hunjan noted that the various different elements to the job include business development, licensing and strategic partnerships, and corporate strategy, plus M&A, commercial intelligence, investor relations and some external communications.
She joined the company in 2016, having built up over 10 years of experience in investment banking and management consultancy, after gaining a first-class degree in biochemistry from the University of Oxford. "My professional experience before joining the company helped me develop different facets of my skill sets that now all connect really well to enable me to deliver in a role which might be deemed as quite daunting. However, for me, it's just the perfect fit."
After university, Hunjan joined Lehman Brothers on the fixed income trading floor and lived through the bank's insolvency "which was an experience in itself," before moving to Nomura, the investment bank that acquired Lehman's business. "When I take a step back and I look at my experience in banking, it was truly formative; it taught me a lot. More than anything, it made me quickly learn how to thrive in high pressure situations and build really productive business relationships," she said.
Banking "taught me how to negotiate and execute bespoke transactions because my specific role was around structured solutions you could craft for your clients, you don't just get them off the shelf,” Hunjan recalled.
After that, she went into strategic consulting at PricewaterhouseCoopers before becoming senior strategist at Cancer Research UK. "I worked on a huge variety of projects across these two roles, from new product launches, regulatory affairs, digital strategy, investment, NHS reform, precision medicine and clinical research."
The main thing she took away from that role "was how to be solution-focused rather than problem-focused, and also the importance of having a well-informed point of view not just a point of view, and to be able to stand behind that."
Her skills from banking and consultancy led to an approach from C4XD, founded as a spin-out from the University of Manchester in 2007 with the aim of creating a productive drug discovery engine, financed through revenue generating preclinical licensing deals.
Hunjan was brought onboard by industry stalwart and CEO Clive Dix. "He presented me with a really unique opportunity to create a new and vibrant commercial team at C4XD. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I couldn't really pass that up,” she said.
C4XD is trying to “create attractive, partnerable scientific data packages to out-license to pharmaceutical companies preclinically." The most striking example of that has been the licensing of a potential best-in-class addiction candidate to fellow UK firm Indivior plc in a deal inked in March 2018 that could be worth up to $294m.
That pact, for which C4XD banked $10m upfront with a further $284m of potential development, regulatory and commercialization milestones plus royalties, centers around a preclinical oral orexin-1 receptor antagonist, known as C4X3256. The compound aims to treat addiction by targeting the craving process itself for a broad range of substance use disorders such as nicotine and cocaine addiction – as well as opioid abuse, which Indivior's main area of focus.
Hunjan said that the challenges of partnering preclinically "are always going to be slightly more complex than trying to partner clinically, simply because the additional risks the partner is taking on at the preclinical stage are significant. They need to believe you've got a really high potential preclinical candidate and Indivior understood the potential value with C4X3256.”
The orexin-1 receptor is considered to be central to the brain’s craving and reward pathways but to date a lack of specificity has hindered clinical development. However, C4XD’s drug discovery engine has led to the creation of C4X3256, a highly specific orexin-1 antagonist that targets orexin-1 but not orexin-2; the latter influences the sleep-wake cycle and its disruption is not desirable except in developing insomnia treatments.
Rigorous Partner Profiling
Once the molecule was polished up, Hunjan established "a robust process for out-licensing, so rather than going out and prospectively asking partners if they would be interested, what I've instilled at C4XD is a very much more intelligence-driven approach to our partnering activities." This involves conducting "really, really rigorous partner profiling before we go out and do any deal. That's very much driven from my experience of being a banker where we used to try and understand the client's needs before making that first interaction, which is often the most important aspect to make it as productive as possible."
She noted that multiple parties responded to this approach, discussed possible terms and how they would develop C4X3256. Working closely with CSO, Craig Fox, it was her team's task to get the best deal covering all those aspects "and we were particularly pleased to partner with Indivior because they're world leading experts in addictive disorders."
Since the deal was done, Indivior has been awarded a US National Institutes of Health grant to fund a Phase I trial, and toxicology and drug metabolism studies to enable Phase II trials. An investigational new drug application for C4X3256 was filed with the US Food and Drug Administration in January this year.
Next up for licensing could be C4XD's oral NRF-2 activator program, looking at a pathway which is important in mediating diseases affecting the lungs, such as sickle cell disease and pulmonary arterial hypertension, as well as having potential in other indications. The company had hoped to partner the program earlier but as a result of discussions with potential licensees, C4XD is enhancing the licensing package with additional study data focused on a shortlist of three potential molecules, a similar approach to the one adopted with C4X3256.
Also making progress is an oral interleukin-17 inhibitor which has demonstrated significant inhibition of inflammation in preclinical disease models for the first time. Current marketed drugs that target IL-17 like Novartis AG's Cosentyx (secukinumab) and Eli Lilly and Company's Taltz (ixekizumab) are huge earners for psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis but are injectable monoclonal antibodies; the commercial potential for an oral treatment would be considerable.
Hunjan noted that as well as the most advanced assets, "we're actually in discussions on other parts of our portfolio as well." She declined to give any specific time frames and noted that “with the environment the way it is, it is particularly unpredictable at the moment, so we have to wait and see how these play out."
The COVID-19 crisis has had a negligible impact on Hunjan's role, she said, noting that "before coronavirus we were in ongoing discussions with numerous partners about different parts of our portfolio anyway and you continue with those relationships, they're already formed. The lion's share of my work involves working on those existing relationships."
As for developing new relationships during the pandemic, she said the sector has embraced virtual working. "I 'attended' BIO-Europe Spring and BIO, the conversations were productive and engaging – people were prepared. Perhaps not running between booths and just sitting at your desk means you might have more time to prepare, more time to sit and absorb the follow-up points and take actions on them. It's been a very productive period from my personal point of view, and a really buoyant period for C4XD's business development and strategic partnership activities."
Hunjan told In Vivo, "When I take a step back and look at what has been the one consistent thing that is been a feature of my role at C4XD, it would be change and that's both within the company and also the biotech drug discovery landscape more generally. It never stands still, whether it's a new patent being published, the motivations of a partner changing, breakthrough data from our science teams or a new discovery technology."
Being informed and keeping pace with that level of change is vitally important for her individually and her commercial team more widely, Hunjan added. "We must keep abreast of those changes, inform ourselves, look for avenues to make an impact and come up with innovative things that we may not even be thinking about today."
Embracing New Technologies
An interest of Hunjan's is to look at technologies from outside the pharma and biotech space and how they could be applied to the sector. "It's difficult to do because the nuances of the life sciences industry are very particular," she said. As one example, C4XD is not shying away from advances in the virtual arena to improve its drug discovery efforts.
The company has created its own virtual reality tool named 4Sight, a specialized visualizer that allows its research scientists to view, understand and interrogate the complex, multidimensional shape data of drug molecules. Having measured these shapes using C4XD’s Conformetrix technology, this '4D molecular data' can then be visualized and manipulated to inspire the design of new molecules. Working from both a desktop environment and within a VR space, the visualizer also facilitates simultaneous collaboration with multiple users across various sites.
These tools have become central to conformational drug design within C4XD, enabling chemists to make faster progress in developing new and more effective drugs. ”We have this amazing coder who came from Epic Games [makers of the online video blockbuster Fortnite] to help develop C4XD's VR technology which helps chemists visualize molecules. They can actually go in and hold the molecule and move it with their hands, it's a way of accessing a different part of their brains and helping them find the right chemistry solution. I think the more we do that, the more groundbreaking the sector will be."
Hunjan said making In Vivo’s list of 30 Rising Leaders across the biopharma, medtech and health technology sectors "was a lovely surprise” as. C4XD is at "a really exciting growth point." The company’s profile has recently been enhanced by the news that CEO Dix was appointed in June as deputy chair of the steering board of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, the group set up by the government to lead the country's efforts to find and manufacture a COVID-19 vaccine.
"I'm really proud to work with him. He's a brilliant leader and a visionary," Hunjan said, adding that "the energy and excellence of the people at C4XD goes across the entire company, right from the board to the more junior roles. It's very motivating and inspiring to be around this set of people."