Lilly signs a $1B deal to deepen its oncology ties with China's Innovent

Innovent CEO Michael Yu

Eli Lilly ($LLY) has expanded its R&D partnership with China's Innovent Biologics, bringing in three potential immunotherapies for cancer and adding another $1 billion in potential value to the existing alliance.

Under the new deal, the companies will collaborate on three bispecific antibodies that target the protein PD-1 in an effort to unblind the immune system to malignancies in the body. Lilly is on hand to develop and commercialize each treatment outside of China, while Innovent retains the local rights, the companies said. In exchange for Innovent's help, Lilly is promising more than $1 billion in payments over the next decade, tied to development, regulatory and sales milestones.

The agreement builds on a March deal between the two in which Lilly paid $56 million up front and promised as much as $400 million more for a handful of early-stage cancer treatments. In the give-and-take pact, Lilly received the ex-China rights to an antibody targeting the cancer antigen CD20 and a preclinical immunotherapy, while Innovent got the Chinese rights to Lilly's c-Met antibody program for lung cancer.

Lilly's deeper dive into immuno-oncology is in part an effort to catch up with some of its rivals in the quickly evolving space. Lilly has been outpaced by Merck ($MRK), Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and others in the race to commercialize cancer therapies that use the power of the immune system to fight tumors, and the company is now redoubling its efforts to build a pipeline of next-generation therapies. In addition to its work with Innovent, Lilly is expanding its New York City R&D complex with a particular focus on immuno-oncology.

For Innovent, the widened collaboration burnishes what the company says was already the largest research partnership between Big Pharma and China. Innovent made a splash in the industry earlier this year when it closed a $100 million financing round with plans to become China's go-to maker of biologics. The Shanghai-headquartered drugmaker is moving forward with a pipeline of 10 monoclonal antibodies--6 proprietary and four biosimilar--with two candidates slated to enter the clinic this year.

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