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Lilly, CureVac Partner on RNA Cancer Drugs in $1.8B Deal

RNA illustration

RNA illustration (University College London, Flickr)

18 October 2017. Drug maker Eli Lilly and Company and biotechnology company CureVac AG agreed to develop a series of cancer immunotherapies based on CureVac’s messenger RNA technology. The deal, if completed in full, could bring CureVac, in Tübingen, Germany, as much as $1.8 billion.

CureVac’s technology adapts messenger RNA, nucleic acids related to DNA that leave the cell nucleus and go to cells’ protein-making components. Those cell components synthesize human proteins by reading and translating the genetic code in messenger RNA into the appropriate amino acids for that protein. The company’s platform is based on research by Ingmar Hoerr in the 1990s, one of CureVac’s founders, who discovered a way of controlling RNA that was previously considered too unstable for use as a treatment or vaccine.

For cancer immunotherapies, CureVac says its RNActive technology delivers messenger RNA molecules as a vaccine, encoded for antigens that stimulate immune responses to specific tumors. The target neoantigens — those not previously encountered by the immune system — take up the messenger RNA molecules, then depending on the type of cancer, stimulate a mix of T-cells that directly destroy cancer cells, or help along the immunotherapy process.

Much of CureVac’s pipeline is now devoted to cancer immunotherapies, addressing prostate cancer and non-small cell lung cancer. The non-small cell lung cancer therapies, in an early-stage clinical trial and preclinical studies, are already licensed to Boehringer Ingelheim, as reported by Science & Enterprise in September 2014. The prostate cancer therapy is in intermediate-stage trials.

Under the agreement, Lilly, based in Indianapolis, and CureVac will collaborate on development of up to 5 cancer vaccines based on RNActive. CureVac is responsible for design of the messenger RNA therapies, as well as formulation and manufacture of the products for clinical trials. Lilly will identify the 5 targets for development, and be responsible for their subsequent clinical stages and commercialization. CureVac retains the option of co-marketing the vaccines in Germany.

CureVac is receiving an immediate payment of $50 million, plus an equity investment from Lilly of €45 million ($53 million). If all 5 cancer immunotherapy products are realized by the partnership, CureVac could earn $1.7 billion in developmental and commercial milestones, as well as royalties on product sales.

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