Lilly, CureVac pen $1.8B mRNA cancer vaccine deal

Eli Lilly is putting up $1.8 billion (€1.5 billion) to work with CureVac on five mRNA cancer vaccines. The back-loaded deal moves Lilly into an emerging field that seeks to use mRNA to guide immune attacks on tumors. 

Lilly is making a $50 million upfront payment and €45 million equity investment to get the deal up and running. Beyond that, CureVac is in line to receive up to $1.7 billion in milestones as the five vaccines pass development and commercialization milestones.

A lot of work lies between CureVac and those milestones. Lilly and CureVac are divvying up the early workload, with the Big Pharma handling target identification and the biotech applying its mRNA skills to the design and formulation of candidates. When the vaccines reach the clinic, Lilly will run the trials using supplies manufactured by CureVac.

The goal is to design candidates that deliver mRNA molecules capable of orchestrating immune attacks against certain neoantigens. In doing so, CureVac and Lilly think they can take out tumors.  

That has proven to be a seductive idea to investors, biotechs and Big Pharmas, which collectively have poured major money into the field in recent years. Lilly’s entry to the field comes 13 months after Roche’s Genentech made its own neoantigen-targeting, mRNA cancer play by penning a deal with BioNtech. That deal landed BioNTech $310 million in upfront and near-term payments.

However, the mRNA cancer vaccine idea has also proven to be challenging to realize. CureVac’s own plans hit the skids in December when lead candidate CV9104 failed to improve overall survival in patients with metastatic castrate resistant prostate cancer.

RELATED: Menichella takes charge of CureVac’s U.S. mRNA outpost 

The Lilly agreement is the first step in a concerted effort to bounce back by spending time at the deal table. 

News of Lilly the pact comes five months after CureVac appointed Daniel Menichella as CEO of its U.S. subsidiary. Menichella was hired to get CureVac and its technology in front of biopharma firms and start striking the sort of big-ticket deals associated with mRNA rivals BioNTech and Moderna.

That focus on business development represented a change of tack for CureVac, which prioritized R&D experience over dealmaking nous when it hired its first U.S. chief in 2015. CureVac rethought its approach over a six-month period in which its first U.S. CEO Karen Slobod left, CV9104 came up short in a phase 2b prostate cancer trial and it appointed Menichella.