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Lilly Patches Up Relationships in Seattle Biotech, Pushes TB Drug Discovery

Xconomy Seattle — 

Eli Lilly did some fence-mending today with the Seattle biotech community. Almost two years ago, the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical giant took over Icos, the Northwest’s most valuable biotech company, grabbing the billion-dollar erectile dysfunction drug it created and sending 365 talented local workers to the unemployment lines. It’s a story you often see with big drugmakers that need to replenish empty pipelines with drugs from smaller biotechs to keep pumping out the profits investors demand.

Yet Lilly is planting some interesting seeds for the future of Seattle biotech that could ultimately mean a lot more for human health than a new lifestyle drug. This morning I stopped by a press conference at the Seattle Life Sciences Center on First Hill (next door to the Xconomy offices) to learn more about The Lilly TB Drug Discovery Initiative.

This effort got its start a year ago with $9 million of drug-screening equipment that Lilly acquired from Icos, had no use for anymore, and subsequently donated to the Infectious Disease Research Institute (IDRI) in Seattle. Lilly then donated another $6 million in cash (to be doled out over five years) to start the organization. Lilly and fellow pharma giant Merck contributed 500,000 small-molecule chemical compounds for screening as tuberculosis drug candidates, and three veteran Icos scientists—Ed Kesicki, Allen Casey, and Joshua Odingo—all decided to devote the next chapter of their careers to this TB effort. They’ve been joined by Tanya Parish, an expert in TB genetics from Queen Mary’s School of Medicine in London. They’re also being assisted by a half-dozen microbiologists at the IDRI, the nonprofit center led by Xconomist Steve Reed.

This effort is about developing new drugs to treat people infected with TB, so it’s distinct from the other local vaccine development initiatives at IDRI and Seattle Biomedical Research Institute.

“About one-third of the world’s population is already infected, so a vaccine won’t help those people,” Parish says about the need for new drugs.

Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that is treated with a six-month regimen of decades-old antibiotics. It involves two months on four drugs, and four more months on two other drugs, Parish says. If you’ve got the multi-drug resistant strain of TB, treatment can take 12 to 18 months, and the cure rate drops significantly, she says. Getting people to stay disciplined on this regimen, not surprisingly, is difficult, which only helps the bug to flourish. And while the existing drugs are effective for the vast majority of patients, there’s an increasing number with the extremely drug resistant, and contagious, form of TB—like the kind Atlanta attorney Andrew Speaker was briefly thought to have—who can end up hospitalized and isolated for months, Parish says.

The need for new TB treatments has been drummed into the public consciousness by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but it bears some repeating. TB is one of the biggest killers in the world today, causing 1.5 million deaths every year, or 5,000 people a day, mostly in developing countries. New small molecules are seen as a critical weapon to combat this disease, because they can be taken orally, don’t need refrigeration, and can be cheaply and easily mass-produced in the developing world.

This Lilly-sponsored effort to find new drugs is still clearly in its infancy. The organization announced this morning that it has acquired a pair of compounds for further development as drug candidates, from U.K-based Summit Plc and the Microbial Chemistry Research Foundation of Tokyo. CPZEN-45, from the Tokyo group, has shown activity against multi-drug resistant TB in mice, without any detectable side effects. That drug could be ready for clinical trials in two years, said Gail Cassell, vice president of scientific affairs at Lilly, during the press conference.

Of course, that’s just the beginning, she added. TB’s multiple strains make it too crafty to be knocked down by a single drug, so there will have to be several new products. When I asked about what the realistic time frame is for bringing these new products to the marketplace, Cassell didn’t make any firm promises, and cited some of the daunting old stats from the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development about how it usually costs $1 billion and takes 14 years or so to develop any new drug. That’s more money than Lilly or any company alone is going to commit, so it needs lots of partners, she says. Plus, with TB in particular, clinical trials take four to six years, so this clearly isn’t right around the corner.

“We need other partners to be successful,” she says.

Judging from my conversation with Kasecki before the press conference, Lilly’s work has gone a long way toward reducing the sting that the former Icosians felt when their company was carved up into little pieces the way a private equity firm would in a typical takeover. If Lilly keeps making smart investments like this, I’m guessing it will find some very talented scientists in Seattle happy to go to work with them on developing new TB drugs.