Eli Lilly ponies up $63M for Sigilon’s diabetes cell therapies

Eli Lilly
In the face of mounting pricing and competitive pressures, Eli Lilly determined in 2015 that the way forward in the diabetes market would be to diversify beyond insulin. (Eli Lilly)

Eli Lilly is continuing its push into new diabetes products, paying $63 million up front to get its hands on Sigilon Therapeutics’ islet cell encapsulation technology. The biotech, which is working on “living therapeutics” for Type 1 diabetes, stands to reap an additional $410 million in milestones and royalties.

Under the agreement, Lilly will pick up an exclusive global license to Sigilon’s tech. The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotech will develop treatments based on induced pluripotent stem cells that are engineered to become insulin-producing beta cells. These cells will be encapsulated using Sigilon’s Afibromer technology.

Encapsulated cell therapies are an emerging approach, not just for diabetes, but for a range of diseases, including liver failure or neurodegenerative disease, where patients lose tissue or tissue function. In Type 1 diabetes, the hope is that encapsulated beta cells can be implanted into patients to take the place of pancreatic beta cells that have been destroyed by the immune system.

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"At Sigilon, published studies have shown the ability to overcome the immune foreign body response with our proprietary Afibromer technology. This holds the promise for the creation of state-of-the-art allogeneic cell factories to be transplanted into patients, without the need for immune suppression. Our cell engineering and delivery system-based platform may allow us to program and control dynamic protein delivery for the long-term treatment of debilitating diseases,” said Paul Wotton, Ph.D., Sigilon CEO.

A Flagship Pioneering company, Sigilon launched in 2017 with $23.5 million and Afibromer research out of MIT and Boston Children’s Hospital. It will be responsible for all development until it files an IND, at which point Lilly will take over the clinical development and commercialization costs and activities for the collaboration, the companies said.

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Lilly, a longtime maker of insulin and other diabetes drugs, revealed in November a device-driven strategy to survive competition and pricing pressure in the diabetes market. The Big Pharma had been quietly working on an automated, wearable insulin delivery device and smart pen injector at a lab it opened in 2015. With biosimilar competition for Lilly’s Humalog on the horizon, Lilly executives determined the way forward was to diversify beyond insulin into drug delivery.

“Do we want to be just an insulin provider that just goes into a system, or do we want to be the integrator of the system?” Enrique Conterno, head of Lilly’s diabetes business, told The Wall Street Journal at the time. “To me, it’s clear where the business is going.”