Eli Lil­ly jumps in­to a $473M hunt with Sig­ilon for the Holy Grail in di­a­betes cell ther­a­pies

Stem cell ther­a­pies have gone through every stage of the long and painful hype cy­cle for emerg­ing drug tech­nolo­gies: Start­ing with wild­ly in­flat­ed ear­ly ex­pec­ta­tions through bit­ter dis­il­lu­sion­ment, a trough of de­spair and on to a slow and pa­tient re­cov­ery brought about by years of dili­gent re­search work in the lab.

Paul Wot­ton, who’s seen it all, be­lieves he can now see the off-the-shelf cell prod­ucts of the fu­ture — en­cap­su­lat­ed in what they’ve dubbed Afi­bromer plat­form tech — tak­ing shape at the end of the new­ly ris­ing curve.

As the found­ing CEO at Flag­ship-seed­ed Sig­ilon, a start­up launched last year in Cam­bridge, MA with a $23.5 mil­lion round, he’s now un­veil­ing one of the fi­nal re­main­ing pieces nec­es­sary for a come­back: An al­liance with a Big Phar­ma part­ner.

To­day Sig­ilon is an­nounc­ing a $473 mil­lion pact with Eli Lil­ly — which is step­ping out un­der a bold­er R&D chief in Dan Skovron­sky — to dri­ve their stem cell work on Type 1 di­a­betes in­to the clin­ic, with $63 mil­lion of that in an up­front and the rest divvied up with a goal of ful­ly fund­ing the de­vel­op­ment of a durable new ther­a­py for the dis­ease. Eli Lil­ly is al­so mak­ing an undis­closed eq­ui­ty in­vest­ment in the com­pa­ny.

“I think we’ve kind of dis­cov­ered the Holy Grail to make cell ther­a­py a re­al­i­ty,” says Wot­ton. 

While re­searchers fig­ured out a long time ago how to get stem cells to trans­form in­to in­sulin pro­duc­ing pan­cre­at­ic be­ta cells for di­a­bet­ics, get­ting them in­to the body to do their work with­out trig­ger­ing a se­vere im­mune re­ac­tion has been an in­sur­mount­able ob­sta­cle.

Bob Langer

But af­ter test­ing new tech out of the labs of MIT’s Bob Langer and Daniel An­der­son in ro­dents as well as non-hu­man pri­mates, Sig­ilon be­lieves it’s with­in a cou­ple of years of start­ing work on a hu­man clin­i­cal tri­al — a ma­jor step to­ward ob­tain­ing clear proof-of-con­cept da­ta. They be­lieve they can de­liv­er islet cells to the body, and keep it hid­den from the im­mune sys­tem, pre­vent­ing fi­bro­sis that can choke cells of nu­tri­tion and oxy­gen. And while they are now pi­o­neer­ing a ground­break­ing field, there are sol­id pre­clin­i­cal rea­sons to be­lieve that they can make the hur­dle in hu­mans.

“Bob Langer’s team screened 600 mol­e­cules that could evade the im­mune sys­tem,” says Wot­ton. And they be­lieve they are on to the kind of en­cap­su­lat­ed cell-based ther­a­pies that can be de­liv­ered in wa­ter sol­u­ble poly­mers — Langer’s sweet spot in the lab — nec­es­sary for de­vis­ing a ther­a­py that could cre­ate a re­li­able sup­ply of in­sulin for pa­tients.

They’re not alone here. Har­vard spin­out Sem­ma re­cent­ly gar­nered a $114 mil­lion megaround to see if their “tea bag” tech for pro­duc­ing in­sulin can do the same thing.

It won’t be quick. There’s no hard time­line on the di­a­betes side, but Sig­ilon is with­in a cou­ple of years of mov­ing a pro­gram in­to the clin­ic us­ing the same tech plat­form to spawn fac­tor VI­II and IX for he­mo­phil­ia pa­tients. And that could help pave the way to a clin­i­cal study in di­a­betes soon af­ter.

“What we have is plat­form tech­nol­o­gy that you can ap­ply to any al­lo­gene­ic (off the shelf) cell line,” says Wot­ton, “pro­gram cells to man­u­fac­ture fac­tor VI­II or IX, or man­u­fac­ture an­ti­bod­ies, with an abil­i­ty to avoid de­tec­tion of the im­mune sys­tem.”

One way to think of it, he says, is as a kind of “gene ther­a­py in a box,” able to ex­press two pro­teins with an op­tion of top­ping up the dose if need­ed lat­er.

How long will that kind of ther­a­py last? Wot­ton doesn’t know the an­swer to that yet, but he’s gam­bling that it’s years rather than months. And Eli Lil­ly, which is in­creas­ing their bet on bold re­search gam­bles, wants to come along for the ride.

This is a big deal for the cell ther­a­py field in re­gen­er­a­tive med­i­cine, as the big play­ers large­ly bowed out of the are­na years ago, sat­is­fied that they were far, far away from any com­mer­cial pro­grams. Eli Lil­ly’s re­turn, along­side a same-day move by Roche we are re­port­ing now, could be an­oth­er sign that the hype cy­cle is fi­nal­ly en­ter­ing the be­gin­ning of the end.

The top 10 block­buster drugs in the late-stage pipeline — Eval­u­ate adds 6 new ther­a­pies to heavy-hit­ter list

Vertex comes in for a substantial amount of criticism for its no-holds-barred tactical approach toward wresting the price it wants for its commercial drugs in Europe. But the flip side of that coin is a highly admired R&D and commercial operation that regularly wins kudos from analysts for their ability to engineer greater cash flow from the breakthrough drugs they create.

Both aspects needed for success in this business are on display in the program backing Vertex’s triple for cystic fibrosis. VX-659/VX-445 + Tezacaftor + Ivacaftor — it’s been whittled down to 445 now — was singled out by Evaluate Pharma as the late-stage therapy most likely to win the crown for drug sales in 5 years, with a projected peak revenue forecast of $4.3 billion.

The latest annual list, which you can see here in their latest world preview, includes a roster of some of the most closely watched development programs in biopharma. And Evaluate has added 6 must-watch experimental drugs to the top 10 as drugs fail or go on to a first approval. With apologies to the list maker, I revamped this to rank the top 10 by projected 2024 sales, instead of Evaluate's net present value rankings.

It's how we roll at Endpoints News.

Here is a quick summary of the rest of the top 10:

Endpoints News

Basic subscription required

Unlock this story instantly and join 53,000+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Partners Innovation Fund

David de Graaf now has his $28.5M launch round in place, build­ing a coen­zyme A plat­form in his lat­est start­up

Long­time biotech ex­ec David de Graaf has the cash he needs to set up the pre­clin­i­cal foun­da­tion for his coen­zyme A me­tab­o­lism com­pa­ny Comet. A few high-pro­file in­vestors joined the ven­ture syn­di­cate to sup­ply Comet with $28.5 mil­lion in launch mon­ey — enough to get it two years in­to the plat­form-build­ing game, with­in knock­ing dis­tance of the clin­ic.

Canaan jumped in along­side ex­ist­ing in­vestor Sofinno­va Part­ners to co-lead the round, with par­tic­i­pa­tion by ex­ist­ing in­vestor INKEF Cap­i­tal and new in­vestor BioIn­no­va­tion Cap­i­tal.

Right back at you, Pfiz­er: BeiGene and a Pfiz­er spin­out launch a new­co to de­vel­op a MEK/BRAF in­hibitor that could ri­val $11.4B com­bo

A day af­ter Pfiz­er bought Ar­ray and its ap­proved can­cer com­bo, BeiGene and Pfiz­er spin­out Spring­Works have part­nered in launch­ing a new biotech that has an eye on the very same mar­ket the phar­ma gi­ant just paid bil­lions for. And they’re plan­ning on us­ing an ex-Pfiz­er drug to do it.

In a nut­shell, Chi­na’s BeiGene is toss­ing in a pre­clin­i­cal BRAF in­hibitor — BGB-3245, which cov­ers both V600 and non-V600 BRAF mu­ta­tions — for a big stake in a new, joint­ly con­trolled biotech called Map­Kure with Bain-backed Spring­Works.

Step­ping on Roche's toes, Mer­ck cuts in­to SCLC niche with third-line Keytru­da OK

In the in­creas­ing­ly crowd­ed check­point race, small cell lung can­cer has been a rare area where Roche, a sec­ond run­ner-up, has a lead over the en­trenched lead­ers Mer­ck and Bris­tol-My­ers Squibb. But Mer­ck is fi­nal­ly mak­ing some head­way in that di­rec­tion with the lat­est ap­proval for its PD-1 star.

The lat­est green light en­dors­es Keytru­da in the third-line treat­ment of metasta­t­ic SCLC, where it would be giv­en to pa­tients whose dis­ease ei­ther don’t re­spond to or re­lapse af­ter chemother­a­py, which would have fol­lowed at least one pri­or line of ther­a­py.

Sanofi aligns it­self with Google to stream­line drug de­vel­op­ment

Tech­nol­o­gy is bleed­ing in­to health­care, and big phar­ma is rid­ing the wave. Sanofi $SNY ap­point­ed its first chief dig­i­tal of­fi­cer this Feb­ru­ary, fol­low­ing the foot­steps of its peers. By May, the French drug­mak­er and some of its big phar­ma com­pa­tri­ots joined forces with Google par­ent Al­pha­bet’s Ver­i­ly unit to aug­ment clin­i­cal tri­al re­search. On Tues­day, the Parisian com­pa­ny tied up with Google to ac­cess its cloud com­put­ing and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence tech to spur the de­vel­op­ment of new ther­a­pies.

UP­DAT­ED: Roche fields first ap­proval for Ro­z­lytrek in the run-up to a show­down with Bay­er, Pfiz­er

While it’s wait­ing to hear back from FDA reg­u­la­tors, Roche is be­gin­ning the vic­to­ry lap for en­trec­tinib in Japan.

Roche is giv­ing Bay­er a run for their mon­ey with this tu­mor-ag­nos­tic drug, which tar­gets NTRK gene fu­sions. Now dubbed Ro­z­lytrek, it’s sanc­tioned to treat adult and pe­di­atric pa­tients in Japan with neu­rotroph­ic ty­ro­sine re­cep­tor ki­nase fu­sion-pos­i­tive, ad­vanced re­cur­rent sol­id tu­mors.

In­vestors fret as VBI's hep B vac­cine fails key sec­ondary PhI­II study goal

Sobered by mount­ing costs, Dy­navax $DVAX last month made the de­ci­sion to fo­cus all its re­sources on its 2017-ap­proved he­pati­tis B vac­cine Hep­lisav-B, which ri­vals and su­per­sedes the ef­fi­ca­cy and con­ve­nience pro­file of GSK’s $GSK es­tab­lished En­ger­ix-B. The Cal­i­for­nia-based com­pa­ny will be on the look­out for an­oth­er com­peti­tor — VBI Vac­cines, which on Mon­day un­veiled late-stage da­ta on its hep B vac­cine: Sci-B-Vac.

Image: Shutterstock

Gene ther­a­py R&D deals turn red hot as Big Phar­ma steps up to play

This September will mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Jesse Gelsinger, a young man suffering from X-linked genetic disease of the liver. He was killed in a gene therapy study conducted by Penn’s James Wilson, and the entire field endured a lengthy deep freeze as the field grappled with the safety issues inherent in the work.

Some thought gene therapy R&D would never survive. But it did. And this year marked a landmark approval for Zolgensma, a new gene therapy for spinal muscular atrophy Novartis priced at $2.1 million.

“Gene therapy is the hottest item on the block now. But there was a time when we first got into this trial, where there wasn’t a person in the world who believed that gene therapy would work. We have to remember that,” noted gene therapy investigator Jerry Mendell told SMA News Today.

We’re still right on the pioneering frontier when it comes to getting approvals for gene therapies and launching marketing campaigns with the European green light for bluebird's leading program last Friday underscoring the nascent nature of the field. But gene therapy R&D is booming, and has been for several years now.

The rapid growth of gene therapy clinical development is well known, but we decided to put some numbers on it, to quantify what’s going on. DealForma chief Chris Dokomajilar took a lot over the past 10 years, as the number of deals, R&D partnerships and buyouts steadily gained steam, spiking last year and on track to maintain the surge in 2019.

The upfronts and totals for the dollars on deals so far in 2019 is already close to the 2018 mark, underscoring a new phase of negotiations as the major players step up to gain a piece of the late-stage and commercial action.

Once again, we’re looking at an “overnight” biotech success story, decades in the making.

At some point, that may start to brake the numbers we’re seeing. But for now, as rivals line up to compete for frontline prominence across a range of diseases, the arrows are all pointed north.

Endpoints Premium

Premium subscription required

Unlock this article along with other benefits by subscribing to one of our paid plans.

Albert Bourla appears before the Senate Committee on Finance for a hearing on prescription drug pricing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, February 26, 2019. Chris Kleponis for CNP via AP Images

UP­DAT­ED: Pfiz­er CEO Al­bert Bourla is back in the M&A game, but why is he pay­ing $11.4B for Ar­ray?

Pfiz­er $PFE has cut short its time on the side­lines of bio­phar­ma M&A.

Mon­day morn­ing the phar­ma gi­ant un­veiled an $11.4 bil­lion deal to ac­quire Ar­ray Bio­Phar­ma, beef­ing up its on­col­o­gy work and adding a new re­search hub in Boul­der, Col­orado to its glob­al op­er­a­tions.

At $48 a share, Ar­ray $AR­RY in­vestors will be get­ting a 62% pre­mi­um off the Fri­day close of $29.59.

Pfiz­er, which has strug­gled to gain all the up­side promised in past buy­outs like Medi­va­tion, high­light­ed the ac­qui­si­tion of 2 ap­proved drugs in the deal — Braftovi (en­co­rafenib) and Mek­tovi (binime­tinib).

Endpoints News

Basic subscription required

Unlock this story instantly and join 53,000+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.