Lilly signs $1bn cancer deal with China’s Innovent

Lilly has expanded its drug development partnership with China’s Innovent, unveiling a new, bigger research programme to include PD-1 cancer immunotherapy drugs.

Shanghai-based Innovent wants to be one of the first Chinese pharma companies based on innovation and cutting-edge science, and Lilly wants to compete in immuno-oncology, set to be the paradigm in cancer treatment.

The two companies first announced their partnership in oncology in March, which included three pre-clinical bispecific antibodies discovered by Innovent. Seven months on, Lilly has now confirmed that it will develop these molecules, and pay up to $1 billion to Innovent if the drugs reach regulatory and sales milestones.

The existing deal gave Lilly rights to develop, manufacture and commercialise the potential cancer treatments outside China, with Innovent holding all rights for China. However now Lilly has secured an opt-in right for co-development and commercialisation of the candidates in China, demonstrating its confidence in the commercial potential of launching innovative cancer drugs in the world’s most populous nation.

“We believe that combination therapy in immuno-oncology has the potential to transform the way cancer is treated,” said Greg Plowman, MD, PhD, vice president of oncology research at Lilly. “We are pleased to be expanding our collaboration with Innovent to further the development of potential therapies for those fighting cancer in China and around the world.”

Michael Yu, PhD, co-founder, president and CEO of Innovent, stated, “We are honoured that Lilly is so quickly expanding our relationship and that Lilly is trusting Innovent to develop and manufacture its newly-created bispecific antibodies for China. We are excited to be at the forefront of immuno-oncology drug development and to benefit from Lilly’s deep experience in bispecific antibodies.”

Bispecific antibodies can bind to two targets simultaneously, and are designed to produce a more powerful anti-tumour immune responses than traditional monoclonal antibodies. Companies such as Amgen have pioneered the technology, its drug Blincyto (blinatumomab) approved last year for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL).

If the partners can successfully apply the bispecific approach to PD-1 immunotherapy, they could develop a more potent rival to the leaders in the field, Merck’s Keytruda and Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo. However, the bar will be set high, as Keytruda and Opdivo will be well established before the Lilly-Innovent drugs reach the market.

The announcement adds to the existing deal, based on Lilly contributing its cMet monoclonal antibody for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) for development in China, and retaining sole rights elsewhere. For its part, Innovent is providing a phase I anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody for blood cancers.

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