Eli Lilly puts cancer immunotherapies in spotlight with $360M-plus BioNTech deal

Lilly Oncology Research Vice President Greg Plowman

Eli Lilly ($LLY) has turned to Germany's BioNTech to form its latest collaboration on the cancer immunotherapy front, handing over $60 million--$30 million as a signing bonus and $30 million for equity--and promising up to $300 million in milestones for each new program that can go the distance.

Styling itself as one of Europe's fastest-growing biotechs with 300 staffers and backed by the billionaire Strüngmann brothers, Andreas and Thomas, BioNTech is at the crossroads of one of the hottest tech sectors in biotechnology. A company subsidiary, Cell & Gene Therapies, has been working on engineering T cell receptors and chimeric antigen receptors that can spur a direct immune assault on specific cancers. The same tech focus recently vaulted the U.K.'s Adaptimmune into the spotlight with a bullish IPO, while U.S. companies like Juno Therapeutics ($JUNO) and Kite ($KITE) have been barreling ahead with similar goals in mind.

The sector leaders, though, have been hampered by toxicity issues, specifically cytokine storms that can threaten patients. BioNTech's claim to fame revolves around its work on cloning TCRs taken directly from patient samples, a process that can take only 11 days. That kind of cloning, they believe, will help the second wave of TCRs to do their work without the tox threat.

The deal highlights Lilly's growing commitment to the oncology field, with an appetite that has been whetted by the recent approval of Cyramza (ramucirumab) for gastric cancer. The company, though, has been buffeted by plunging profits as generic competition stripped away key franchises, forcing it out of the industry's top-10 Big Pharma list.

Last summer Eli Lilly inked a $45 million immunotherapy development deal with the U.K.'s Immunocore, but its most advanced cancer work centers on programs for drugs like necitumumab and ramucirumab. Lilly signed up to partner its cancer drugs with Merck's ($MRK) Keytruda, a PD-1 leader that strips cancer cells of a defense mechanism, as well as Bristol-Myers Squibb's ($BMY) rival Opdivo.

"In the past few years, we've seen some amazing breakthroughs in immuno-oncology; however, we believe these are just the tip of the iceberg," said Dr. Greg Plowman, vice president of Lilly Oncology Research. "Lilly's partnership with BioNTech represents the next wave of cancer immunotherapy and is focused on the identification of functional T cell receptors that can be used to redirect a patient's natural immune system to fight cancer."

CEO Ugur Sahin co-founded BioNTech back in 2008 after spinning it out of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.

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