Eli Lilly’s $15M investment deepens link to startup developing new class of RNA meds

Eli Lilly is making a small equity investment in a startup that recently became a research partner, deepening its connection to a company that could give the pharmaceutical giant a place in the growing field of RNA therapies.

The $15 million investment announced Tuesday comes two months after Lilly agreed to begin a partnership with London-based MiNA Therapeutics, which is developing small activating RNA therapies (saRNA). SaRNA drugs are a new class of medicines that work by a mechanism called RNA activation, which the London-based biotech likens to hitting the “on” switch for the production of a particular protein. The idea is to boost or restore cellular levels of a target protein.

With the new cash from Lilly, MiNA said it will advance and expand its internal pipeline of saRNA therapies, which is initially focused on immune-oncology and genetic diseases. The alliance with the Indianapolis-based drug giant is researching up to five targets selected by Lilly across various therapeutic areas. The agreement calls for Lilly to handle preclinical and clinical development of drug candidates that emerge from the partnership. MiNA received $25 million up front and could earn $245 million for each disease target, plus royalties from sales of any commercialized drugs from the partnership.

Lead MiNA drug candidate, MTL-CEBPA, is designed to encode a protein that acts as a master regulator of myeloid cells and other cell types. In solid tumors, myeloid cells are frequently dysregulated. By restoring CEBPA expression, MiNA said it aims to alter immune cell populations in the tumor microenvironment, potentially improving the efficacy of other cancer therapies.

A Phase 1/2 study is currently underway evaluating the MiNA drug in liver cancer. The drug is being tested in combination with sorafenib, a cancer drug that is currently the standard of care for liver cancer that can’t be removed by surgery. MTL-CEBPA is also being tested in advanced solid tumors. That Phase 1/2 clinical trial is evaluating the MiNA drug in combination with Merck cancer immunotherapy pembrolizumab (Keytruda).

Lilly isn’t MiNA’s only research partner. In January, the biotech teamed up with Paris-based Servier in a partnership developing saRNA therapies for neurological disorders. MiNA stands to earn €220 million, a sum that includes the upfront payment as well as development and commercial milestones for the first disease target, which was not specified. Similar to the Lilly alliance, Servier will handle preclinical and clinical development of the drugs covered under the alliance.

MiNA emerged last September, unveiling a £23 million (about $30 million) Series A round of funding. The biotech said at the time that the capital would support its clinical development plans. In Tuesday’s announcement, MiNA CEO said Lilly’s brings further validation.

“This investment from Lilly, together with our recently announced multi-target research collaboration, represents an important endorsement of our saRNA platform,” he said.

Photo by Flickr user Paul Sableman via a Creative Commons license

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