Lilly taps Avidity's antibody-oligonucleotide conjugate tech in $35M deal

Eli Lilly is looking to create new drugs for immunology and other diseases by combining antibodies and oligonucleotides—or short DNA or RNA molecules. To that end, it is handing over $20 million upfront and $15 million in equity to Avidity Biosciences to use its antibody-oligonucleotide technology to zero in on new targets and propel new medicines toward the clinic. 

Under the research and licensing deal, Avidity could receive up to $405 million in development, regulatory and commercialization milestones for each target Eli Lilly chooses to advance, the companies said in a statement. Avidity could not specify how many targets this could total. 

Attaching molecules to antibodies to take advantage of their selective nature isn’t a new idea. Many players are working on antibody-drug conjugates in oncology, an approach that would deliver cell-killing drugs to cancerous tissue while sparing healthy tissue. However, the complexity of this class of drugs has resulted in only a handful reaching market, despite hundreds of clinical trials in the space. 

An antibody-oligonucleotide conjugate (AOC) would marry the tissue selectivity of an antibody with the precision of oligonucleotide-based therapeutics, Lilly and Avidity said.

"The Avidity technology is an extension of ADC technology however in the case of Avidity’s AOCs, the payload is designed to be highly specific to a disease-related RNA rather than a highly toxic small molecule designed to kill the targeted cell," said Kent Hawryluk, Avidity's chief business officer via email. "This technology opens up the possibility of creating AOCs that target numerous cell types and diseases where ADC were too toxic or where traditional oligonucleotide therapeutics could not reach."

“This collaboration with Lilly provides an exceptional opportunity to leverage Avidity’s proprietary AOC platform in order to generate new therapeutic targets in disease areas that have been challenging to pursue using oligonucleotide-based approaches,” said Kent Hawryluk, Avidity’s chief business officer, in the statement. 

Avidity has shown its AOC technology's ability to affect disease-related RNAs in animal models, including nonhuman primates. It has worked with different types of cells and tissues, including muscle, heart, liver, immune cells and tumor cells, and has preclinical data in "several promising muscle disease," Hawryluk said.

“We are excited to expand our oligonucleotide research and development efforts through this strategic collaboration with Avidity,” said Andrew Adams, Ph.D., chief scientific officer for RNA therapeutics at Eli Lilly, in the statement. “Their expertise in studying the combination of monoclonal antibodies and oligonucleotide-based therapies represent a promising avenue of research toward development of the next generation of RNA based medicines.” 

Avidity, which has been operating under the radar since 2012, has picked up $30 million in venture financing from the likes of Takeda Ventures, Alexandria Real Estate Equities and F-Prime Capital. Its other investors include Alethea Capital, Brace Pharma, EcoR1 Capital, Moore Venture Partners and Boxer Capital of Tavistock Group.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with comments from Avidity.