Eli Lilly is making a $1.8B leap into the mRNA field, targeting next-gen cancer vaccines

Eli Lilly is diving into the messenger RNA arena, signing off on a heavily back-ended $1.8 billion deal with Germany’s CureVac to develop up to 5 new-wave cancer vaccines.

CureVac is getting $100 million in cash to kick off the collaboration, split between an upfront payment and equity stake. Then there’s a package of $1.7 billion in milestones on the table.

In turn CureVac will be tasked with designing a slate of new cancer vaccines that uses mRNA tech to instruct the human immune system to target a specific set of neoantigens. While past cancer vaccines have generally proven to be ineffective though safe, a number of developers have been hunting down specific patient antigens that can be leveraged for much more precise targeting — with a greater likelihood of success.

Ingmar Hoerr

CureVac, though, has met with a key failure on the cancer vaccine earlier in the year. Its leading mRNA program CV9104, a prostate cancer vaccine, failed a critical Phase IIb study in January. That drug used a group of “shared” antigens common to prostate cancer, while rival Moderna has been going after a more personalized approach in its program, partnered with Merck.

CureVac — backed by German billionaire Dietmar Hopp along with additional funding from the Gates Foundation — is one of the leaders in the mRNA field, with Moderna and others engaged in a scientifically demanding approach to instructing targeted cells to create a treatment. It’s still early days, though we are beginning to see more early human data that underscores the potential of the field.

For Lilly, this is another example of a more expansive approach to partnering and external innovation, with new CEO Dave Ricks more likely to reach out to collaborators than his predecessor John Lechleiter.

Noted CureVac CEO Ingmar Hoerr:

This new collaboration with Lilly is a testimony to the progress and sophistication of CureVac’s RNActive technology and the potential of mRNA-based therapeutics. We now have the opportunity to combine forces to further expand the exciting space of immuno-oncology with the next generation of cancer therapies.

The Eli Lilly and Co corporate headquarters is pictured April 26, 2017, in Indianapolis. AP Photo/Darron Cummings

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