A day after Pfizer decided to step back from the development of a universal cell therapy for cancer, Eli Lilly is jumping in, this time for diabetes. Lilly is licensing cell encapsulation technology from Cambridge, MA biotech Sigilon Therapeutics to develop an off-the-shelf, or “allogeneic”, cell therapy to treat type 1 diabetes.
The two companies announced today that Lilly (NYSE: LLY) will pay Sigilon $63 million up front and make an undisclosed equity investment. The startup could also receive up to $410 million in development and commercialization milestones, as well as royalties on future sales if an FDA-approved product reaches the market. Sigilon will handle all preclinical development, and Lilly will take over the clinical and commercialization work, if they make it that far.
Under the collaboration, Sigilon will use a type of stem cell called induced pluripotent stem cells to create a universal source of engineered insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells, which are lacking in patients with type 1 diabetes. Sigilon aims to shield the transplanted cells from attack by the immune system by coating the cells with special polymers, which the company calls its “Afibromer” biomaterial. The goal is to eliminate the need for patients to take immune-suppressing drugs.
Sigilon was founded in 2016 by MIT biomaterial pioneers Bob Langer and Daniel Anderson and others, and raised $23 million last year from Flagship Pioneering. Two other companies, Semma Therapeutics (which raised $114 million last year) and Viacyte (which is already in clinical trials), are also working on allogeneic cell therapies for diabetes, but instead of encapsulating their cells, they are packaging them in a small implantable semi-permeable device. Semma’s chairman, Mark Fishman, told Xconomy last year that the device has advantages over encapsulation technology and could allow his company to get to human testing faster.