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Lilly doubles down on Innovent cancer drug in immunotherapy push

Eli Lilly has expanded a licensing deal with Innovent Biologics, giving the pharma most of the rights to a cancer immunotherapy the two have brought to market for a form of lymphoma in Innovent’s home country of China.Lilly and Innovent had already split rights to the drug, Tyvyt, in China through a 2015 agreement. They’ll continue to share those profits under the new deal, but Lilly now gains rights to Tyvyt everywhere else. Lilly paid Innovent $200 million upfront, and could hand over as much as $825 million more through additional milestone payments.The decision signals Lilly’s interest in using Tyvyt to challenge more established immunotherapy competitors. The two are seeking approval of Tyvyt in China for first-line lung cancer, and Lilly now plans to follow with similar requests in the U.S. and other regions.

Lilly is a latecomer to immunotherapy, which is now a mainstay treatment for cancers of the skin, lung and kidney.

Merck & Co., Bristol Myers Squibb and Roche have each built their cancer business around a type of immunotherapy known as a checkpoint blocker, and then added other medicines to the mix through different drug combinations.

That strategy helped Merck’s drug Keytruda become the standard of care for a majority of patients with advanced lung cancer. In a study known as Keynote-189, Merck showed adding Keytruda to chemotherapy reduced patients’ risk of death by half compared to chemo alone.

Bristol Myers and Roche have immunotherapy-based combinations of their own, and more recent entrants like Regeneron are following suit.

Lilly, by comparison, has been slower to build its cancer drug offerings, focusing the bulk of its outside investment on targeted cancer drugs — most notably in 2018, when it bought Loxo Oncology for $8 billion. The biotech was recently made the center of a restructured oncology division at the pharma.

Lilly does aim to play a larger role in immunotherapy, and it appears to be leaning on Innovent to help. In 2015, the company paid the Chinese biotech $56 million to collaborate on at least three cancer drugs, among them Tyvyt. Now approved in China for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the checkpoint inhibitor earned about $122 million in sales over the first six months of 2020.

Lilly plans to test Tyvyt across other tumor types, Anne White, head of Lilly’s cancer unit, said in a statement. Twenty-one industry-sponsored studies of the drug are listed on database as currently recruiting patients with esophageal, gastric, liver, colorectal and other cancers.

In lung cancer, the two companies have already submitted an approval application in China for a regimen of Tyvyt and pemetrexed, the same chemotherapy used as part of the drug combination tested by Merck in Keynote-189.

At a major medical meeting earlier this month, investigators on a study of Tyvyt and pemetrexed in lung cancer compared their results to those produced in Keynote-189. Such comparisons can be misleading, but the early data showed a similar benefit to the Tyvyt combination on the surrogate measure of progression-free survival as the Keytruda regimen.

Keytruda’s overall survival benefit in Keynote-189, however, was critical in convincing physicians to prescribe the drug alongside chemotherapy in previously untreated lung cancer patients. More time is needed to calculate overall survival times for Tyvyt plus chemo, although researchers reported a positive trend favoring the drug combination.

Tyvyt was co-discovered by Innovent and Adimab, a privately held company that makes antibodies for a number of pharmas and biotechs.