Hungry for more, Lilly tops off weight loss pipeline with $1.9B deal to acquire Versanis

Eli Lilly just can't get enough weight loss therapies or acquisitions to bolster its pipeline. The Indianapolis-based company has signed off on a $1.92 billion deal, which covers an upfront payment and potential milestones, for Boston-based Versanis and lead asset bimagrumab.

The monoclonal antibody is already in a phase 2 trial both alone and in combination with semaglutide in adults who are overweight or obese.

Novo Nordisk’s GLP-1 receptor agonist semaglutide—which is marketed as Wegovy to treat obesity—is know as an incretin-based therapy. Combining incretins with bimagrumab “has the potential to further reduce fat mass while preserving muscle mass and may lead to better outcomes for people living with obesity and obesity-related complications,” Lilly explained in this morning’s release.

"Lilly is committed to investigating potential new medicines to fight cardiometabolic diseases, including obesity, a chronic disease that affects over 100 million Americans," Ruth Gimeno, Ph.D., Lilly’s group vice president for diabetes, obesity and cardiometabolic research, said in the release. "By unifying the knowledge and expertise in incretin biology at Lilly with the deep understanding of activin biology at Versanis, we aim to harness the potential benefits of such combinations for patients."

Last month, Lilly posted phase 2 data from one of its own incretin drugs, called retatrutide, which showed an average reduction in body weight of 24%. The results blow out of the water data from the currently approved medicines—Wegovy and another incretin drug by Lilly called Mounjaro. Lilly's offering is approved for Type 2 diabetes but has been used off label for obesity.  

Privately owned Versanis was founded in 2021 by biotech investment firm Aditum Bio, which set up the company specifically to develop bimagrumab for the treatment of metabolic diseases and obesity after the firm licensed the drug from Novartis.

Bimagrumab is a monoclonal antibody to activin type II receptors, which is designed to block the binding of ligands including myostatin, activins and GDF11. The drug has had a checkered past, having failed a phase 2b/3 study for a rare muscle-wasting disease called sporadic inclusion body myositis way back in 2016.

Aditum wasn’t the only one to see bimagrumab’s potential in obesity, with European life sciences investors Medicxi co-leading a $70 million series A financing round for Versanis in August 2021.

For Lilly’s part, today’s acquisition continues a busy summer of M&A. The Big Pharma spent June handing over upfront payments of $34.6 million and a whopping $2.4 billion to acquire Type 1 diabetes partner Sigilon Therapeutics and IL-17-focused Dice Therapeutics, respectively. With Lilly keeping the upfront fee for Versanis under wraps for now, it’s hard to decipher how today’s deal compares to its recent spending spree.