After playing possum in I/O, Eli Lilly shows new signs of life with $40M-plus cash discovery deal for NextCure

Eli Lilly was essentially a no-show in the initial scramble to slice up a massive, mega-blockbuster market for immuno-oncology drugs. But they’ve been showing signs of life this year.

Leena Gandhi

In the latest in a series of I/O moves, Eli Lilly $LLY is paying $40 million — $25 million in an upfront and $15 million for equity — to NextCure to get started on a discovery program for next-gen immuno-oncology drugs. 

The biotech has been developing its FIND-IO platform, exploring cell surfaces in search of new ways to trigger an immune response to cancer. There are some unspecified milestones and royalties attached to NextCure’s ultimate success, which are typically rich in scope but back-ended for the partner.

NextCure is run by a group of ex-Amplimmune execs under Michael Richman, who sold their former biotech to AstraZeneca in a $500 million deal.  They scored a $67 million A round from a group of marquee investors in early 2016. The company is a Yale spinout, with licenses on new tech from the lab of Lieping Chen, who’s done pioneering work on the PD-1/PD-L1 checkpoint pathway.

Eli Lilly may be late to the game, but they’ve been sending a bunch of signals that they plan to eventually become a player in this field. Lilly recruited Leena Gandhi from the Perlmutter Cancer Center at NYU Langone Health to head up its immuno-oncology research work earlier this year. And the company paid $1.6 billion to obtain Armo, a biotech that had been developing a PEGylated IL-10 called pegilodecakin.

Their slim I/O pipeline includes a handful of programs, including their own PD-L1 (there are scores in development), a TIM-3, the Armo drug and a type 2 multikinase inhibitor.

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