Dive Brief:

  • Eli Lilly & Co. has inked a development collaboration with Germany’s CureVac AG to work on immuno-oncology assets based on the biotech’s messenger RNA (mRNA) technology.
  • Lilly will pay CureVac $50 million upfront and make a roughly equivalent equity investment in the company. The biotech could also receive $1.7 billion in development and commercialization milestones if all five vaccines reach the market, as well as potential royalty payments.
  • Lilly will be responsible for target identification, clinical development and commercialization, while CureVac will handle mRNA design, formulation and manufacturing of clinical supply, as well as retain the option to co-promote the vaccines in Germany.

Dive Insight:

While the technology is still early, Lilly is placing bets it can develop cancer vaccines using an mRNA approach, which targets encoded neoantigens that instruct the immune system to selectively attack cancer cells.

The approach of therapeutic cancer vaccines has not been particularly successful in the past and the field has been marred by failures, as well as issues with toxicity. But immuno-oncology, which uses the immune system to target cancers, has seen remarkable successes to date — raising interest in possible combinations and complementary approaches.

CureVac, which was backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the past, has had its own hardships. The company announced during the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in January that its prostate cancer vaccine failed in Phase 2.

But company management said at the time they believed CureVac’s mRNA technology would be best utilized in combination with checkpoint inhibitors. The company also has a partnership with Boehringer Ingelheim, combining the biotech’s cancer vaccine with the German drugmaker’s aftinib in development for lung cancer.

Lilly has been working hard to become a leader in oncology. The Indianapolis-based pharma has put much of its hopes largely on the CDK 4/6 inhibitor Verzenio (abemaciclib). While the drug is third-to-market in the class, Lilly hopes it can be best in class. A recent setback in lung cancer may blunt that optimism, although the drug still has competitive efficacy in certain breast cancers.

mRNA technology could help bolster Lilly’s broader position in oncology. Despite the setbacks with the tech, investors have been pouring money into mRNA biotechs. CureVac has several high profile investors, while competitor Moderna Therapeutics has touted multiple large blockbuster rounds of financing.

Article courtesy of BioPharmaDive. For more information and Eli Lilly press release.

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