Over one billion people globally suffer from problems with their sight. The vision of Dr Eddy Wu’s start-up pharmaceutical company is to address their plight.
An estimated 1.3 billion people worldwide live with some form of vision impairment. An additional 36 million are blind and lead severely compromised lives.
Now contemporary lifestyles and changing dietary habits have brought additional challenges. Diabetic retinopathy is on the rise. So is myopia. And as populations age, cataracts and macular degeneration have become common among the elderly. Indeed, some 721 million people in China – around half the total population – have uncorrected vision.
But lack of doctors, particularly in remote areas, and not enough access to early diagnosis and treatment of eye ailments, are long-standing problems in the field of ophthalmology. Even in the most advanced settings, treatments are not available for many conditions.
This is where the expertise of Dr Eddy Wu (Croucher Studentship 2003) comes in.
With over 15 years’ experience in molecular pharmacology, overseeing research and development (R&D) activities and heading pharmaceutical markets in Asia Pacific, the Middle East, and Africa, Wu has gained in-depth insight on this unmet need and has now started his own company specialising in ophthalmology.
Wu’s firm, Arctic Vision, was established in May 2019. It is focused on developing a portfolio of breakthrough technologies with commercial value to address ophthalmic needs, which is the fastest growing segment among all disease areas in China. Macular degeneration affects 34 million people across the country. Meanwhile, 28 million have moderate to severe forms of dry eye.
While there are advances in the field, Wu noted, researchers are heavily focused on studying the American and European markets and have no footprint in China as yet. “I would like to partner and collaborate with companies to see if we can bring those drugs to China and ultimately commercialise them to make sure Chinese patients also benefit from the treatments.”
Wu is already in talks with potential partners but this is only the first step. Once this side of the business is established, Arctic Vision aims to start an in-house R&D platform. This would broaden the company’s scope and create the potential for venturing into product development for worldwide distribution.
“Arctic Vision will be looking into treatment of multiple eye conditions but will primarily focus on developing drugs for diseases without any treatment or standard of care at the moment, and on helping achieve higher standard of care for existing treatment with sub-optimal results and low response rates,” Wu explained. He gave dry eye as an example. This is a common affliction globally and is easily treated with artificial tears. However, many severe forms have no treatment as yet.
Wu is familiar with the world of pharmaceutical research as he previously served as Head of Terns China Biotechnology, where he was responsible for directing and overseeing all aspects of R&D.
Terns Pharmaceuticals entered the China market in 2017. Terns is a global biotechnology company specialising in innovative drugs for nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) and liver diseases. It is headquartered in the US.
NASH, a form of non-alcoholic fatty liver, involves inflammation of the organ and damage caused by a build-up of fat within it. While many people with the condition show no symptoms, in some cases NASH can cause scarring of the liver, ultimately leading to cirrhosis.
While working at Terns, Wu was based in Shanghai and looked after manufacturing, preclinical studies, clinical trials, and financing, among other areas. “It was a great experience building something from scratch. It gave me much-needed confidence to establish Arctic Vision. I also learned about capital growth, fundraising, and venture capitalists, all the necessary ingredients to start your own company.”
Wu began his career with Novartis, a Swiss multinational pharmaceutical company. He stayed with the firm for close to a decade, being based in Hong Kong, Taipei, and Basel over the years. At Novartis, he became adept at the inner workings of the pharmaceutical market and learned about differences in healthcare systems in Europe and Asia. But it was the five years at Novartis’s headquarters in Basel that had the most impact on his early career development.
As the company’s Regional Medical Director, he led multiple clinical development programmes and gained first-hand global experience across many different therapeutic areas. Later, he served as Head of Health Economics and Outcome Research for the Asian, Middle Eastern, and African markets.
“I was in charge of more than 90 countries and had to be familiar with all of their healthcare policies, as well as handling various local barriers on site,” Wu recalled. “It was challenging but I was also very close to the centre of decision-making, learning strategic thinking and finding effective ways for information dissemination, and carrying out operations in these countries.”
Wu then moved to Allergan China as Executive Medical Director, developing the company’s overall R&D, clinical, medical, and portfolio strategy for China, before joining Terns China Biotechnology, and most recently launching Arctic Vision.
Growing up in Hong Kong, Wu fully recognised the city’s emphasis on its financial sector. But he was determined to pursue a career in science and help people through improved healthcare options.
An advisory board he organised in 2012 further cemented this decision when a dozen experts from around the world gathered to discuss a new drug for macular degeneration and talked about the dramatic decline in blindness and improving eye care treatments at that time.
“It was one of those instances where I realised the importance of collaboration between healthcare providers and commercial pharmaceuticals to help treat patients,” Wu said. “I may have started a company now, but I’m not so much into investment as I am into establishing a company that can help unmet healthcare needs.”
Hong Kong’s limitations as a healthcare centre and its lack of large-scale pharmaceuticals does create hurdles for those seeking to enter the field, Wu noted. Since pharmaceutical businesses in the city are small, there are not enough people to cover every aspect, which means staff have to multitask and work on areas other than their field of specialisation.
While an excellent learning experience for beginners, to advance a career and test innovative ideas it is necessary to move to places with bigger scope, resources and market, where the need for new products can be justified and impact shown on larger populations, Wu said.
Hong Kong does boast top-tier physicians and healthcare personnel working on research and providing students with access to cutting-edge knowledge. However, a lack of human resources poses a genuine challenge when conducting clinical trials and registering new drugs, especially in Hong Kong where medical standards are high.
To members of the younger generation wanting to enter the world of pharmaceuticals and make a difference through their work, Wu suggests accepting the concept of globalisation early and that mobility will be part of the job. He is also mindful of ever-changing trends in the medical field, the latest being artificial intelligence and robotics, which are bringing dramatic results in diagnosis, drug delivery, and telemedicine, among others.
He recommends continuously exploring to keep prospects bright and to fill future gaps, rather than just looking to existing trends. “I don’t mean everyone has to know machine learning and coding, but one has to bear in mind the world is changing and there is a need to remain competitive and relevant.”