Eli Lilly makes modest bet on 'all-in-human' discovery outfit for ALS drugs, deepening bid in precision neurology
For years, Big Pharma has retreated from neurology amid a series of high-profile failures in the big-ticket indications such as Alzheimer’s and ALS. But the tide has turned in recent years, and big drugmakers like Eli Lilly have doubled down on their investments in the space.
Now, looking to crack a new path to “precision neurology,” Lilly is putting its name behind a genomics player aiming for a novel path to neurological disease therapies.
Lilly will pay $25 million upfront and up to $694 million in biobucks for licensing rights to four potential programs from Verge Genomics, a San Francisco-based discovery outfit boasting an “all-in-human” discovery and development platform using AI to crunch through data from the biotech’s proprietary brain tissue database, the partners said.
It’s a modest upfront investment for Lilly and one with a game clock: The discovery pact comes with a three-year term, adding some near-term stakes for Verge’s work.
The biotech is helmed by CEO Alice Zhang, who co-founded the genomics player at the tender age of 26 back in 2015. She told Endpoints News the Lilly collaboration was a natural offshoot of Verge’s strategy to take as many of its in-house molecules through development as possible. The benefit of having Lilly and its deep experience in neurology is an obvious boost.
Where Verge seeks to differentiate itself is in its discovery and preclinical approach, which doesn’t rely on animal models but rather uses AI-developed molecules tested in ex vivo human neurons prior to clinical trials. Leaning on a growing dataset of neuro genetic data, Zhang envisions a future in which neurology looks a lot like oncology, with a series of highly validated pathways offering a real chance at developing precision medicines for patients.
“One of the main value propositions Lilly saw when they chose us as a partner is we had the ability to actually identify genetic pathways rather than individual genetic mutations that are shared across larger and more commercially viable patient populations,” she said. “So we can find other ‘nails’ for this kind of new ‘hammer’ of genetic therapies that we have.”
In terms of how Verge got on Lilly’s radar, CBO Jane Rhodes explained the conversation started after BIO 2020 with the drugmaker expressing interest in Verge’s discovery platform and then its potential in drug development. That series of chit-chats, which included hashing out exactly how a deal would look, eventually turned into the pact you see today.
“We began discussions and quickly honed in a few key diseases, ultimately focusing on ALS,” Rhodes said. “We spent a lot of time getting to know each other and really fine tuning the agreement so it really delivers on what Lilly needs and what is a strong strategic advantage for Verge as well in that it unlocks value and targets that we wouldn’t necessarily have targeted ourselves.”
Verge will not only pursue the four candidates alongside Lilly but also has a lead candidate in ALS the biotech hopes to hit the clinic by the end of the year, Zhang said. That drug inhibits the PIKfyve gene, which Verge said has shown a connection in ALS. Verge will hold onto rights for its lead programs with Lilly holding licensing rights for the four separate candidates.
Rhodes said Verge is looking to strike a balance between advancing its own in-house candidates and bringing in outside partners to bring other molecules through the pipeline. In the meantime, that could mean other Big Pharma partners, but the scientific fit is the ultimate deciding factor.