Eli Lilly taps Verge Genomics in ALS deal worth $25M upfront

Allying with Eli Lilly will allow Verge Genomics to explore earlier-stage targets and take “multiple shots on goal” with a leader in the neuro space, said Verge CEO and co-founder Alice Zhang. (Verge Genomics)

As Verge Genomics plugs away at its amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) program, it is teaming up with Eli Lilly to pursue even more targets for new treatments against the devastating disease.

The neuroscience-focused drug discoverer will pick up $25 million in an upfront fee, equity and near-term payments but stands to collect up to $694 million down the line. Under the three-year deal, Verge will use its artificial-intelligence-powered drug discovery platform to identify new targets of which Lilly may select up to four to push into clinical development and commercialization.

The targets under the deal will not overlap with Verge’s in-house pipeline of treatments for ALS and other neurodegenerative ailments.

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“We have a wealth of compelling targets with strong genetic support … We picked two to focus on to develop to the clinic, but there are a number of promising targets that we don’t have the capacity to prosecute ourselves,” said Verge CEO and co-founder Alice Zhang. Allying with Lilly will allow Verge to explore some of those earlier-stage targets and take “multiple shots on goal” with a leader in the neuro space, she said.

Verge plans to start clinical trials for its lead program, an ALS treatment that targets the enzyme PIKfyve, next year, Zhang said. And the company announced in June 2020 that it had partnered with an unnamed pharma company to screen its library of PIKfyve inhibitors for potential antiviral activity against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.  

Zhang started Verge in 2015 to remedy a major problem in drug discovery: translation.

Although the industry has dramatically improved how efficiently it can screen and make new drugs, the cost of drug development has still grown exponentially because targets aren’t translating from animals to humans, she said.

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Through partnerships with universities, hospitals and brain tissue banks, Verge has built an all-in-human drug discovery platform to take animal models out of the equation. Its database includes tissue samples from brains and spinal cords of patients with different diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS.

“We fully profile the patient tissue to identify genetically supported targets that we continue to validate using our own human neuron models,” Zhang said.

As it works on ALS programs in-house and with Lilly, it will advance its programs in Parkinson’s disease, frontotemporal dementia and other types of dementia.