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Regor countersues Pfizer in trade secret theft case

Biotech firm denies stealing Pfizer information, and says it developed its own compounds

by Michael McCoy
March 25, 2022

The structure of danuglipron.

Last month, Pfizer filed a lawsuit against two former executives. The suit claims the pair stole the company’s trade secrets and used the information to set up a competing firm, Regor Therapeutics.

Now, the executives, chemists Min Zhong and Xiayang Qiu, are firing back. They have filed a countersuit in which they deny all the charges and say they left an organization with a shrinking internal R&D effort to start something new.

Pfizer filed its complaint on Feb. 2 in Connecticut federal court. In the filing, the company claims Zhong and Qiu began amassing documents about Pfizer drug discovery programs, including compounds in development and other trade secrets, before leaving the company in June 2018.

Among the pilfered documents, Pfizer claims, was information related to its program to develop small-molecule agonists of glucagon-like peptide 1, or GLP-1, which stimulates insulin production. Several approved drugs treat diabetes and obesity by targeting a receptor on GLP-1, but with one exception they all must be injected. None of them are oral small molecules.

Pfizer has two oral small-molecule GLP-1 receptor agonists in clinical trials. One, danuglipron, is in Phase 2 trials. In November 2018, Regor published patents on a set of small-molecule GLP-1 receptor agonists that appear “strikingly similar” to ones Pfizer developed, the Pfizer suit says. One of those compounds, RGT-075, is now in clinical trials.

In Regor’s countersuit, the executives acknowledge that they left Pfizer to start their own company, but they say they didn’t breach any contracts or misappropriate any trade secrets.

“Pfizer has spun a story that these two scientific managers became disgruntled at not being promoted, and nefariously planned to build a competitive business based on a foundation of stolen trade secrets,” the Regor suit says. “But Dr. M. Zhong and Dr. Qiu did no such thing.”

The suit says Zhong and Qiu saw that Pfizer had become reliant on acquiring drug candidates from outside sources while repeatedly shrinking its own R&D workforce. Massive layoffs over the years at Pfizer research sites in Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor, Michigan, and later in New London and Groton, Connecticut, left the chemists “dispirited,” the suit says.

“Even though their own careers were progressing at Pfizer, they grew tired of seeing so many talented and respected colleagues let go,” it says. They had watched colleagues at smaller biotech companies invent and develop their own drugs and decided to do the same.

Regor’s suit says Zhong and Qiu weren’t closely involved in the GLP-1 receptor agonist program while at Pfizer. Regor’s research on such agonists, the suit says, is actually the work of Wenge Zhong, a long-time Amgen medicinal chemist who joined Qilu Regor, Regor’s China-based affiliate, in July 2018.

The suit describes how Wenge Zhong built a team of in-house scientists and created a drug discovery and development ecosystem among contract research organizations in Shanghai. Regor says the new team discovered its own GLP-1 receptor agonists using public information, computational chemistry, and Wenge Zhong’s medicinal chemistry insights.

For example, Pfizer alleges that Min Zhong and Qiu stole documents describing the co-crystal structure for a Pfizer small molecule interacting with the GLP-1 receptor. But the Regor suit describes a different process in which Wenge Zhong and his team of computational chemists build their own virtual models of the GLP-1 receptor interacting with agonist compounds.

Rather than use information stolen from Pfizer, Wenge Zhong and his team had much public information they could draw on, the Regor suit says, including patents published by Pfizer and Chugai Pharmaceutical.

Similarly, Regor says, Wenge Zhong didn’t use a pilfered structure of danuglipron, one of Pfizer’s investigational GLP-1 receptor agonists, as a benchmark in animal studies of its compounds, as Pfizer alleges. Rather, Regor says Wenge Zhong first learned of the structure of danuglipron when Pfizer disclosed it at the ACS Spring 2019 meeting in Orlando, Florida. ACS publishes C&EN.

Regor says the Pfizer lawsuit has cast a cloud over its drug discovery efforts. The complaint seeks a declaration that Min Zhong and Qiu didn’t steal any Pfizer trade secrets or breach their contracts with Pfizer. It also seeks a declaration that Regor is the sole owner of all its patents.



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