Pharma, R&D

Eli Lilly picks up an oral GLP-1 diabetes drug from a big Roche sub for $50M in cash-plus deal — and it’s not a peptide

Eli Lilly has gone shopping for its next GLP-1 diabetes drug at a big Roche subsidiary — and this time we’re not talking about Genentech.

Tokyo-based Chugai Pharmaceutical is handing over global rights to OWL833, an oral, non-peptide GLP-1 receptor agonist that has been put through a preclinical program and is aimed straight at a Phase I study.

To get it, Eli Lilly handed over a $50 million upfront, not a small amount for a preclinical drug asset, and signed off on a set of milestones that were not disclosed but likely add up to quite a bit — if they go the distance.

Dan Skovronsky

Lilly is a major player in diabetes globally, with some big league franchises it needs to protect and grow. One of those is its blockbuster GLP-1 injectable Trulicity, which competes against a group of heavyweights that includes Victoza from Novo and AstraZeneca’s Bydureon. 

Trulicity made Lilly $2 billion last year, topping its list of new drug products.

What’s the big deal here? If Lilly researchers can navigate the clinical work, an oral drug would play well with greater ease of use and potentially fewer side effects — that’s the non-peptide part — in helping patients control the disease. They already know the market is there. And Lilly can bring big league resources to the table in reaching a major market that’s responsive to significant though not breakthrough advances.

Of note, Novo Nordisk is steering its oral version of its once-weekly Ozempic (semaglutide) through late-stage tests. But that is a peptide, with common side effects like constipation and nausea.

These diabetes development programs aren’t cheap or easy or fast, and Lilly has a cautious, go-slow rep. It will be interesting to see if new R&D chief Dan Skovronsky can do something about the development timeline, given his vow to speed things up at the Big Pharma laggard.

“We believe OWL833 can be a best-in-class oral non-peptide GLP-1 receptor agonist and that its value will be further enhanced through Lilly’s clinical development to contribute to people around the world who live with diabetes,” noted Chugai EVP Yasushi Ito.

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