- AstraZeneca is recommitting to the GLP-1 drug development race, announcing Thursday a bet on an experimental therapy from China-based biotech Eccogene that’s in early clinical testing.
- AstraZeneca will pay $185 million upfront for rights to the drug, dubbed ECC5004, and promised up to $1.8 billion more if certain clinical, regulatory and commercial milestones are met. AstraZeneca will have global development and commercial rights outside of China, while the two companies will share rights in China.
- AstraZeneca gained rights to the first once-weekly GLP-1 drug, Bydureon, in 2013 through a transaction with Bristol Myers Squibb. Eli Lilly’s Trulicity and Novo Nordisk’s Ozempic have dominated in recent years, however, while AstraZeneca’s focus in diabetes shifted to Farxiga, its second best-selling product in 2023.
Wall Street analysts and even big pharmaceutical company CEOs like Pfizer’s Albert Bourla are making ambitious sales forecasts for GLP-1 drugs, predicting annual global sales could reach as high $90 billion by the end of the decade. The rosy predictions have spurred a rush of investment by companies not already in the field.
While GLP-1 drugs’ ability to lower blood sugar in people with diabetes is well-established, they’re now in the spotlight due to the powerful weight loss benefits of newer versions like Novo Nordisk’s Wegovy.
A new entrant, Lilly’s diabetes treatment Mounjaro, is catching up quickly. On Wednesday that drug gained U.S. approval as a weight loss treatment and will be sold by Lilly under the name Zepbound.
AstraZeneca’s cardiometabolic business is its second-biggest after oncology, pulling in nearly $8 billion in sales so far in 2023. It’s led by Farxiga and blood thinner Brilinta, with sales of $4.4 billion and $996 million respectively through the first nine months of 2023. (Both could lose market exclusivity soon as their main U.S. patents are set to expire in the next few years.)
Farxiga, a pill that lowers blood sugar through a different mechanism than the GLP-1s, has been a big seller in part by showing it protects heart and kidney health.
If successful, ECC5004, an oral agent, could help AstraZeneca compete in the GLP-1 market. Today, the only oral GLP-1 drug is Novo’s Rybelsus. Pfizer discontinued one of its oral GLP-1 candidates in June because of liver safety concerns.
“We believe [ECC5004] could offer alternatives to current injectable therapies both as a potential monotherapy as well as in combination for cardiometabolic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, as well as for obesity,” said Sharon Barr, AstraZeneca’s head of biopharmaceuticals R&D, in a statement.
AstraZeneca said the Phase 1 data so far show a “differentiating clinical profile” with “good tolerability and encouraging glucose and body weight reduction across the dose levels tested compared to placebo.”
The company had its own GLP-1 agonist in Phase 1 testing for diabetes, but discontinued it earlier this year as part of a “strategic portfolio prioritization.” It has another in testing for non-alcoholic steatohepatitis.