Lilly enlists a long-incubating RNA upstart in new $1.25B partnership
For nearly a decade after Imperial College London professor Nagy Habib launched MiNA Therapeutics around a new kind of RNA in 2008, the company made virtually no announcement: no venture capital raised, no collaborations signed. Now, it’s like a fire hose.
On Tuesday, MiNA announced a research collaboration with Eli Lilly worth up to $1.25 billion: $25 million upfront and $245 million in milestones for each of five potential targets. The collaborators didn’t divulge what those targets would be, but said they would come in Lilly’s “key therapeutic areas,” such as metabolic diseases and diseases of the central nervous system.
“It’s nothing odd they haven’t been working on,” CEO Robert Habib, Nagy’s son, told Endpoints News.
The deal is the third and largest pharma collaboration MiNA has signed since the start of 2020, after a research deal with AstraZeneca for an undisclosed sum and an up to $266 million neurology-focused partnership with Servier. They also grabbed their first venture round in that span, raising $30 million from the Israeli VC aMoon and others.
The flurry represents the payoff of over a decade of work on a technology Nagy Habib deemed small-activating RNA. These strands function similarly to the small interfering RNA that has turned Alnylam into a $15 billion company but in reverse: Instead of hijacking cellular machinery to turn the volume down on a gene, they hijack it to turn the volume way up.
The biotech first used saRNAs for liver cancer, Nagy Habib’s focus as a researcher. They used saRNA to turn up expression of certain genes on the myeloid cells that cluster around and often shield a tumor from the immune system. The idea was to reprogram the cells from pro-tumor myeloid cells to tumor-eating myeloid cells and boost the efficacy of checkpoint therapies like Keytruda. They showed (early) proof-of-concept data at ASCO last year.
MiNA thinks that saRNA, like mRNA and RNAi, can be used across a range of diseases and, with their newfound partners, they’re now working to expand the list. There’s also an older collaboration with Boehringer Ingelheim on fibrotic liver diseases, such as NASH.
In the Lilly deal, which they first began negotiating at JPM 2020 before the pandemic sidetracked everything, the Indianapolis pharma will select the genes they want to amplify and MiNA will design the RNA strands needed to do the trick.
“Where we started is immuno-oncology but clearly we believe this tech can be applied across different disease areas,” Robert Habib said. “It’s not limited to any cell type.”
Cash from their partners has given MiNA a good runway, Habib said. Still, he added, they will look to raise another venture round in the next year.