- Eli Lilly will pay up to $1 billion for privately held biotech Protomer Technologies in a deal that gives the big pharma access to an experimental glucose-responsive insulin.
- Founded in 2015, Pasadena, Calif.-based Protomer develops drugs that respond to "molecular activators" like glucose, which is elevated to unhealthy levels in people with diabetes. Lilly joined with the Juvenile Diabetes Resarch Foundation to provide the startup with venture funding, and owned a 14% stake in Protomer before agreeing on Wednesday to buy the whole company.
- Diabetes researchers have sought to develop a glucose-responsive insulin since the 1970s, but they have been limited by a lack of speed and sensitivity. That could soon change, however. Novo Nordisk began a Phase 1 trial of an experimental project last year, and Lilly could keep pace through its acquisition of Protomer.
Lilly and Novo, the world's two leading developers of diabetes drugs, rarely allow each other to get much of a lead. Their non-insulin glucose-controlling injections Trulicity and Victoza have been fighting for market share for years, along with long-acting insulin products like Basaglar and Tresiba.
Lilly has eked out a lead in developing a next-generation non-insulin shot called tirzepatide that is nearing a regulatory review. Novo has responded by starting Phase 1 trials of its own version. But Lillly trails Novo in a race to develop glucose-responsive insulin — a gap it aims to close by acquiring Protomer.
While insulin has been used to lower blood sugar in diabetes patients for nearly a century, it's tricky to use. Glucose levels can be unpredictable and often must be monitored by taking blood samples from finger sticks. For those needing more intensive control of their blood sugar, the timing and size of injections can be difficult to judge.
When insulin lowers blood sugar too far, patients can have hypoglycemia, which can cause seizures and death and is particularly dangerous when people are sleeping.
An insulin that activates when glucose levels rise, then, could provide better disease control and lower the risk of hypoglycemia, researchers believe.
"Glucose-sensing insulin is the next frontier and has the potential to revolutionize the treatment and quality of life of people with diabetes by dramatically improving both therapeutic efficacy and safety of insulin therapy," Ruth Gimeno, Lilly's vice president of diabetes research and clinical investigation, said in a statement.
The deal is valued at $1 billion to Protomer's shareholders, based on achievement of development and commercial milestones. The companies did not disclose the specific value of up front and milestone payments.
In addition to Lilly and the diabetes research foundation's Type 1 Diabetes Fund, Sanofi, maker of the long-acting insulin Lantus, provided early support for Protomer's work.