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Start-Up Licenses Immunotherapies in $880M Deal

Human T-cell

Scanning electron micrograph of a healthy human T-cell (NIH.gov)

31 Mar. 2020. A new biotechnology enterprise creating treatments that alter chemical functions in immune cells agreed to license its technology to a pharmaceutical company. The deal with Eli Lilly and Company in Indianapolis could bring Sitryx in Oxford, U.K., a company less than two years old, as much as $880 million if all aspects of the agreement are fulfilled.

Sitryx is developing therapies for cancer and autoimmune disorders that invoke the immune system by regulating metabolic functions in immune system cells. Those cells generally remain in a quiet state until called upon to react to conditions such as infection or inflammation.

When immune system cells respond, they work through several pathways and mechanisms that produce proteins such as cytokines and enzymes, as well as other signaling compounds that can affect other cells and tissue in the body. These chemical changes in immune system cells are the aim of Sitryx’s work, to develop therapies that correct malfunctioning immune system cells contributing to tumor growth and inflammation.

Sitryx, as reported by Science & Enterprise at its founding, was started in October 2018 by life science entrepreneur and investor Houman Ashrafian, a partner at SV Health Investors in London. Sitryx also benefited from intellectual property and an initial investment from drug maker GlaxoSmithKline, part of a $30 million stake led by SV Health Investors.

In addition, the company has five scientific founders: Luke O’Neill, immunologist and molecular biologist at Trinity College Dublin, Jonathan Powell, cancer specialist at Johns Hopkins University, Jeff Rathmell, immunologist at Vanderbilt University, Michael Rosenblum, cell and molecular biologist at University of California in San Francisco, and Paul-Peter Tak, an immunologist, entrepreneur, and now a partner at venture investor Flagship Pioneering.

The five-year deal provides Eli Lilly with an exclusive worldwide license to four of Sitryx’s treatment candidates for autoimmune disorders, currently in preclinical stage, including the company’s two lead programs. The precise disorders or targets were not disclosed. In the collaboration, Sitryx will conduct drug discovery, while Eli Lilly will be responsible for clinical development and commercialization.

In return, Sitryx is receiving an initial payment of $50 million and a $10 million equity investment from Eli Lilly. In addition, Sitryx is eligible for up to $820 million in development milestone payments, as well as undisclosed commercialization progress payments and royalties on sales.

Eli Lilly says the deal with Sitryx will bolster its already active program in immunology that includes the approved psoriasis drug Taltz and numerous candidates in clinical trials or regulatory review. “Regulating the metabolism of immune cells is a promising approach to treating these diseases,” says Ajay Nirula, vice president for immunology at Lilly in a statement. Nirula adds, “As Lilly seeks to develop new and unique medicines for people suffering with autoimmune diseases, we are actively exploring a variety of scientific approaches both in our own labs and with external partners.”

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