Lilly regains an oncology asset in up-to-$575M AurKa deal

Eli Lilly
AurKa could pick up as much as $465 million in regulatory and sales milestones. (Eli Lilly)

On the heels of its $1.6 billion Armo acquisition, Eli Lilly is striking another oncology deal. This time, the company will hand over $110 million up front for Aurka Pharma, a TVM Capital Life Science company set up to develop AK-01, an Aurora kinase A inhibitor currently in phase 1 for solid tumors. 

Aurora kinases are thought to play a key role in cell division by controlling chromosomal segregation. Errors in this process can lead to genetic instability, which is linked to tumor formation. Aurora kinases are overexpressed in cancerous tumors, Lilly said. AK-01 could potentially be a first-in-class drug, and if it's approved in the U.S. and other markets, AurKa could pick up as much as $465 million in regulatory and sales milestones, Eli Lilly said in a statement. 

The deal brings AK-01 back under Lilly's roof—the Big Pharma sold the asset to TVM in 2016 after a "review of its clinical pipeline priorities," the company said. The VC firm then launched AurKa to develop the drug, backed with its Live Science Ventures VII fund. Lilly had previously contributed to the fund, which totaled $201.6 million at its final closing. 

Now that TVM and AurKa have jump-started AK-01, Lilly is eager to take it down the home stretch. 

"The acquisition of AurKa Pharma supports Lilly's external innovation strategy, in which we seek to partner with leading life science venture capital firms in order to identify, support and access promising innovation in areas of unmet medical need," said Darren Carroll, senior vice president of corporate business development at Eli Lilly. "We are excited with the value TVM created for this compound through its early-Phase studies, and we look forward to more opportunities in the future." 

"Through the unique healthcare venture capital model pioneered by TVM Capital Life Science, companies such as AurKa have been established to more quickly and efficiently bring promising compounds to clinical proof-of-concept," said Luc Marengere, Ph.D., managing partner at TVM. "We are pleased that the scientific advances made by AurKa could contribute to the development of AK-01 and hopefully help deliver a potential new medicine for cancer patients." 

On Thursday, Lilly announced it would acquire Armo Biosciences, getting its hands on its lead asset, pegilodecakin and accelerating its foray into immuno-oncology. Pegilodecakin is a PEGylated form of the anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-10 and is currently in a phase 3 trial in pancreatic cancer. It’s also in the clinic for lung and renal cell cancer, melanoma and other solid tumor types. 

These latest acquisitions come after an R&D shakeup last summer. Lilly said it was seeking partners for two-thirds of its midphase oncology compounds so it could focus its R&D budget on seven early to midstage assets. 

“Lilly will pursue new standard-of-care changing therapies that target tumor dependencies in molecularly enriched populations, build rational combinations that overcome resistance and develop next-generation immunotherapies,” the company said at the time.