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Lilly bets bigger on RNA drugs, with latest deal targeting immunology

  • In its latest R&D collaboration, Eli Lilly is using a precision drugmaker’s technology to discover and advance RNA-based medicines.
  • Announced Monday, the deal between Lilly and Avidity Biosciences aims to find treatments for immunological diseases and other “select” indications by deploying the latter company’s antibody oligonucleotide conjugate platform — which, as its name suggests, combines monoclonal antibodies with oligonucleotide-based therapies.
  • Lilly is investing $15 million in its new partner in addition to a $20 million upfront payment. Avidity could take home around $405 million in milestone payments per development target, as well as tiered royalties in the mid-single to low-double digit range should any product resulting from the collaboration make it to market.

Pharmas under stress often try to quickly beef up their pipelines. That’s been the case with Lilly, particularly in the area of cancer. The company in January agreed to buy Loxo Oncology for $8 billion, a deal that came less than a year after its $1.6 billion acquisition of Armo BioSciences, an immuno-oncology biotech.

Immunology has also become a priority for Lilly, fueled by the market performance of Taltz (ixekizumab), an anti-inflammation agent that ticked close to blockbuster status in 2018.

“You’d have to expect that we will continue to be looking in oncology and immunology … two areas where there’s just a lot of opportunity,” Joshua Smiley, Lilly’s chief financial officer, said on an earnings call in early February.

Its latest deal suggests that Lilly sees RNA-focused technology as a viable method for treating immunology indications. In a statement, the big pharma said Avidity’s platform could “potentially overcome barriers to the delivery of oligonucleotides and target genetic drivers of disease.”

“Their expertise in studying the combination of monoclonal antibodies and oligonucleotide-based therapies represent a promising avenue of research toward development of new RNA-based medicines,” said Andrew Adams, chief scientific officer for RNA therapeutics at Lilly, in the April 22 statement.

Avidity, however, isn’t Lilly’s first foray into RNA therapeutics. The company recently teamed up with Dicerna Pharmaceuticals to use its RNA interference technology to discover new treatments for cardio-metabolic disease, neurodegeneration and pain.

It’s a technology that has captured the interest of other drugmakers as well. Earlier this month, for example, Regeneron inked a broad R&D deal with Alnylam Pharmaceuticals — owner of the first U.S. approval of an RNA interference therapeutic — to pursue a similar approach to Lilly’s with Avidity.

That collaboration envisions pairing Regeneron’s well-known expertise in antibodies with Alnylam’s RNAi work to go after targets unreachable by antibodies alone.

Elsewhere, Roche last summer put more than $1 billion on the line for access to PureTech Health’s milk-derived exosome platform, which the Swiss pharma believes may allow gene-regulating drugs to be administered orally rather than by injection.

Biogen has also inked a billion-dollar R&D deal with Ionis Pharmaceuticals for the development of antisense drug compounds.

For Lilly, deals such as those with Loxo, Dicerna and now Avidity come as the pharma faces pressures in its more established therapeutic areas.

Revenues from Lilly’s neuroscience and cardiovascular portfolios have been on the decline over the last few years as key products lost patent protection. And while still growing, the company’s flagship endocrinology business isn’t immune to the pricing pressures bearing down on the diabetes drug market.