Lilly doubles down on protein degradation, inking $35M deal with Lycia and promising $1.6B more

Eli Lilly is signing another protein degradation partner, signaling a growing commitment to the space, which seeks to tackle “undruggable” targets. 

The Big Pharma is handing over $35 million and promising more than $1.6 billion in milestone payments to work with Lycia Therapeutics on up to five of these tricky targets in areas including immunology and pain. 

Lycia will use its lysosomal-targeting chimeras, or LYTAC, platform to discover new protein degraders and Lilly will take care of preclinical and clinical development, the duo said in a statement. Lilly also picks up a worldwide license to commercialize treatments that come out of the deal. 

RELATED: Pfizer funnels $1B into protein degrader Arvinas, with more in biobucks on the table 

Numerous biotechs have sprung up in recent years to harness the body’s protein degradation machinery against targets that are difficult to drug. Rather than design molecules that bind to disease-causing proteins, these biotechs are getting rid of these troublesome proteins altogether. 

Big Pharmas, such as Roche, Sanofi and Pfizer have teamed up with the likes of Vividion—now part of Bayer—Kymera, Nurix and Arvinas to get into the burgeoning field. 

Lilly, through its venture arm, chipped into Kymera’s series A and B rounds in 2017 and 2018. And in November 2020, the company joined forces with BeyondSpring’s Seed Therapeutics to develop “molecular glues” to degrade disease-causing proteins. It forked over $10 million upfront and invested $10 million in seed and promised about $780 million in future payments if preclinical, clinical, regulatory and commercial goals are met. 

Lycia’s approach is different from the PROTAC technology used by companies like Arvinas. Short for proteolysis-targeting chimera, PROTAC molecules exploit the natural mechanism human cells use to get rid of unneeded or damaged proteins. Because they rely on machinery that’s inside the cell, proteins outside the cell, either on cell surfaces or circulating in the blood, are out of reach. 

RELATED: Lycia Therapeutics uncloaks with $50M to tackle protein degradation in a new way 

Based on the work of Carolyn Bertozzi, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Stanford University, LYTACs are designed to “grab” proteins from cell membranes, or proteins that are in circulation, and “drag” them into the cell, where they are degraded by the lysosome, said Lycia CEO Aetna Wun Trombley in a previous interview.