Eli Lilly Quietly Invests in Technology to Harness Human-Cell Messaging
(Bloomberg) -- For the past three years, Eli Lilly & Co. has been quietly watching and investing in technologies that harness the messaging power of cells in hopes that it could lead to new medicines.
One-fifth of the company’s pipeline is composed of drug candidates that are based on nucleic acids like RNA or DNA, the information-carrying part of cells. While consumers have heard much about how messenger RNA in Covid-19 vaccines is used to prime the body to ward off infection, Lilly wants to use these new technologies to target cardiovascular and brain diseases.
“What seemed edgy a few years ago is now mainstream,” said Dan Skovronsky, Lilly’s chief scientific and medical officer, in an interview Wednesday at the company’s investor event at the New York Stock Exchange.
Lilly wants to capitalize on the momentum. The drugmaker is bolstering its internal pipeline, hiring new talent, building facilities and scouring for deals to get a leg up in the space, Skovronsky said.
Shares of the Indianapolis-based drugmaker rose 10% to close at a record, valuing the company at $263.3 billion in a year when it has passed Merck & Co. and Amgen Inc. in market capitalization.
Lilly delivered a “robust set of pipeline updates” at its investor event, Barclays Plc analyst Carter Gould said in a note to clients. The company’s 2022 revenue and earnings forecasts topped expectations thanks to higher sales and gross margins “against the backdrop of relatively low expectations given headwinds and new launches,” Gould said.
Skovronsky is particularly excited about small interfering RNA, which can stop specific genes from making protein. The biggest challenge ahead is figuring out how to deliver the message to certain tissues or organs rather than the whole body. That will be important for a medicine to work in the heart or brain.
Lilly also wants to strengthen its position in gene therapy, where disease-causing mutations are treated by introducing new DNA with a functioning gene. If the company can crack the code for RNA and DNA technologies, Chief Executive Officer David Ricks thinks it will fundamentally change medicine.
“I think for the next two decades that will become the growth driver for the industry,” he said in an interview.
Ricks said he’s less interested in messenger RNA as the company believes it won’t be that helpful for the types of metabolic or neurological disorders it is pursuing.
Looking to 2022
Lilly’s vision for the future might be medicines that rely on nucleic acids, but that’s not what’s going to drive its growth in 2022.
The drugmaker aims to introduce five new products in the next two years, including three that Ricks expects will have more than $1 billion in annual sales. Two of those potential blockbusters -- the diabetes and obesity treatment tirzepatide and Alzheimer’s drug donanemab -- could reach the market next year.
If approved, donanemab would be the second Alzheimer’s drug to advance to the market via a U.S. Food and Drug Administration accelerated approval pathway. The regulatory route became controversial after the FDA approved Biogen Inc.’s Aduhelm for Alzheimer’s in June, drawing criticism from doctors who question its effectiveness.
“If anything, all of the attention and controversy around Aduhelm has driven people to donanemab,” Skovronsky said, noting that Lilly’s clinical trial of the medicine has enrolled patients more quickly than expected. “We had to expand the size of the trial from a couple hundred patients to 1,500 patients. By the end, we had to go to 1,800 patients.”
Lilly completed enrollment about a month ago, he said.
Skovronsky said he hopes that donanemab will get U.S. approval in the second half of next year, and then the company may report data from its late-stage trial in early 2023. That data could further draw patients away from Aduhelm, he said.
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