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Lilly partners with Aktis, deepening radiopharma investment

Eli Lilly is partnering with biotechnology company Aktis Oncology to develop radiopharmaceuticals for cancer, agreeing to a deal that will pay the startup $60 million upfront.

Per terms announced Tuesday, Aktis could receive as much as $1.1 billion more from Lilly if certain milestones are met. Lilly is also making an equity investment in Aktis.

In exchange, Lilly will receive global rights to develop radiopharma therapies discovered by Aktis against drug targets selected by the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical company.

The partnership comes seven months after Lilly entered the radiopharma field with a $1.4 billion buyout of Point Biopharma. That acquisition gave Lilly three clinical-stage candidates, a research and development center in Toronto and a factory in Indianapolis.

“This collaboration with Aktis Oncology builds upon our growing radiopharmaceutical capabilities,” said Jacob Van Naarden, head of Lilly Oncology, in a Tuesday statement.

Radiopharmaceuticals have become an attractive alternative to radiation therapy for treating certain cancers. Using a targeting molecule to home in on cancer cells, the drugs deliver radioactive isotopes into tumors, while better sparing surrounding healthy cells.

Clinical successes and regulatory approvals have galvanized investment and interest in the therapies. Still, they are difficult to produce, requiring specialized suppliers and manufacturing facilities. Treatment requires precisely timing delivery to ensure the radioisotopes the drugs contain don’t decay to a point where they are less effective.

Aktis is developing alpha-emitting radiopharmaceuticals, so called for the type of radioactive particle they emit. The company’s lead candidate targets a protein called Nectin-4 that’s associated with bladder and other cancers. Nectin-4 is also a popular target of antibody-drug conjugates, another type of cancer mecine. 

Under the deal, Aktis will handle discovery-stage work through initial human imaging studies, while Lilly will take over clinical development from Phase 1 on. Aktis retains full rights to its current pipeline, including the Nectin-4 program.

In addition to Lilly, the biotech has previously drawn attention from other major oncology players. Bristol Myers Squibb and Novartis, the latter of which has two approved radiopharmaceuticals, participated in Aktis’ $72 million Series A round three years ago. And in 2023, Merck & Co’s venture arm participated in the company’s Series A extension, which raised $84 million.