Lilly takes big bet on German startup’s cancer technology

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Eli Lilly and Co. is taking a $100 million bet on new cancer technology being developed by a German biotech startup, but the deal doesn’t come without a few risks.

The Indianapolis-based drugmaker recently announced it is collaborating with CureVac AG to develop up to five cancer products.

The products will be based on a new field of biotechnology sweeping the industry called messenger RNA (or mRNA, for short), which is designed to carry data to instruct the body to produce its own proteins capable of fighting a wide range of diseases.

CureVac, formed in the 1990s, calls its version of mRNA “RNActive.” The company has been trying to develop the technology on its own, but recently suffered a big setback.

In December, a lead candidate molecule called CV9014 failed to meet the overall primary endpoint for improving overall survival in patients with prostate cancer.

“We now recognize that this therapeutic vaccine fails to induce a survival benefit as a monotherapy in patients with metastatic prostate cancer receiving standard of care therapies,” the company said in January.

But CureVac said it was working on a “path forward” by developing other molecules, including a rabies vaccine for humans, which it said was being tested in healthy volunteers and was proving to be “well-tolerated” with no safety concerns.

Now, another path forward will be working with Lilly to develop and test a wide variety of cancer vaccines, using the mRNA technology.

Under the agreement, Lilly will give CureVac an upfront payment of $50 million and an equity investment of about $52.8 million.

CureVac is also eligible to receive more than $1.7 billion in development and commercialization milestone payments if all five vaccines are successfully developed, plus royalties on product sales.

Lilly will be responsible for identifying targets and overseeing clinical development and commercialization. CureVac will be responsible for mRNA design, formulation and manufacturing of clinical supply.

The two companies said they will use mRNA technology to target tumors “for a more robust anti-cancer immune response.”

Other big pharmaceutical companies have seen promise in mRNA technology and are pursuing similar deals. The latest, prior to the Lilly-CureVac deal, was between Swiss drugmaker Roche’s biotech unit, Genentech, and biotech startup BioNtech for $310 million in upfront and near-term payments, according to Fierce Biotech, an industry news site.

The promise of mRNA technology “has proven to be a seductive idea to investors, which collectively have poured money into the field in recent years,” Fierce Biotech wrote.

Lilly, for its part, did not downplay its own enthusiasm for finding an mRNA partner.

“We are excited to be collaborating with CureVac,” said Dr. Greg Plowman, Lilly’s vice president of oncology research, “to discover what could potentially be the next frontier of cancer medicine.”

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