AstraZeneca builds in obesity with $2bn+ Eccogene deal

AstraZeneca's Sharon Barr

Sharon Barr, executive vice-president, BioPharmaceuticals R&D, AstraZeneca

AstraZeneca headlined its third-quarter earnings update with news of a $185 million upfront licensing deal with Chinese biotech Eccogene for an orally active GLP-1 agonist drug with potential in diabetes, obesity, and other cardiometabolic diseases.

The early clinical-stage candidate, called ECC5004, is a GLP-1 receptor agonist (GLP-1RA) that, according to AZ, has shown “good tolerability and encouraging glucose and body weight reduction” in phase 1 testing.

While AZ is an established player in diabetes with drugs like SGLT2 inhibitor Farxiga/Forxiga (dapagliflozin) and older GLP-1 drugs like Bydureon (exenatide), it has lagged behind rivals Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly in the obesity category, which both have GLP-1-targeting drugs approved for chronic weight management.

Novo Nordisk’s GLP-1 agonists Wegovy (semaglutide) and Saxenda (liraglutide) were joined this week by Lilly’s dual GLP-1/GIP agonist Zepbound (tirzepatide) – approved yesterday in the US, as well as the UK – but all these candidates have to be administered by subcutaneous injection.

AZ recently discontinued the development of an in-house oral GLP-1 agonist after deciding the profile of the drug was not competitive, but it still has injectable GLP-1/GIP and long-acting amylin candidates in early-stage clinical testing.

It has rejoined the race to bring an oral alternative to market with its Eccogene deal, which includes another $1.825 billion in potential payments tied to clinical, regulatory, and commercial milestones, as well as royalties on sales if ECC5004 makes it through to market. Eccogene has retained co-development and co-commercialisation rights to the candidate in China.

Other companies working on oral obesity therapies include Novo Nordisk and Lilly, as well as Pfizer, MSD/Merck & Co, and Structure Therapeutics.

“With the number of people living with cardiometabolic conditions and obesity today already over one billion, there is a need for continued innovation and next-generation therapeutic options,” remarked AZ’s head of biopharma R&D, Sharon Barr.

“We believe this oral GLP-1RA molecule could offer alternatives to current injectable therapies, both as a potential monotherapy as well as in combination for cardiometabolic diseases,” she added.

News of AZ’s new licensing deal came as it reported a healthy 5% increase in third-quarter revenues to $11.5 billion, despite flatlining COVID-19 vaccine sales, and raised its profit forecast for the full year.

Excluding COVID-19 vaccine sales, revenue growth came in at 15%, driven by strong demand for its cancer therapies and rising sales in emerging markets. The star performer was PD-L1 inhibitor Imfinzi (durvalumab), which rose 56% to almost $1.2 billion in the three-month period.