Seed Therapeutics Inc. signed a massive deal with Eli Lilly and Co. on Nov. 12, a date that resonated deeply with Seed’s CEO, Lan Huang. Twenty-one years earlier to the day she published a pioneering paper on cancer signaling pathways involving p53 degradation in Science.
“It’s a magical coincidence that exactly 21 years later we have this deal with Lilly,” she told BioWorld, a deal with protein degradation at its core.
In the new research collaboration and license agreement, Seed will receive $10 million cash up front to fund research along with a $10 million equity investment from Lilly. Seed could also receive up to $780 million in preclinical and clinical development, regulatory and commercial milestones, plus tiered royalties on net sales of products springing from the collaboration.
What Seed refers to as “molecular glue” is designed to get the body’s cells to recognize and degrade disease-causing proteins using ubiquitin E3 ligases. Those hundreds of proteins associated with human diseases typically are not targeted for elimination and were previously considered to be undruggable. The company’s program is focused on developing new chemical entities that have more drug-like chemical properties. Huang said the approach could benefit patients with a range of indications that include cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
Target disease-causing proteins are labeled with chains of poly-ubiquitin by a ubiquitin E3 ligase, marking that protein for destruction.
It’s a different approach that developing proteolysis-targeting chimeras, which Huang said is not as effective. Seed’s program could target 70% of undruggable targets, she added. To do that, the program is set to activate the body to degrade unwanted disease proteins such as mutant protein and misfolded proteins.
This is Lilly’s first deal with a company specializing in target protein degradation, Huang added.
With a PhD in chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley, her training from 1998 to 2002 at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center was the window in which she co-authored the Science paper. Its publication changed the trajectory of her professional life. Until then, she had only wanted to be a professor bent on discovery. She meditated on the work and what it potentially offered, pondering what she would “do with this beautiful structure.” She determined that publishing more science papers would not be her goal. She took her career into her own hands by deciding that the “most gratifying moment would be translating the platform into medicine.”
That path from the lab to becoming an entrepreneur led to her co-founding and becoming CEO of Beyondspring Pharmaceuticals Inc. The company literally sprang to life in June 2013 with a phase II cancer compound already in hand. It was Huang’s fourth venture. In 2009, she was the recipient of China's Thousand Talent Innovator Award. She co-founded Wuxi MTLH Biotechnology Co. Ltd., whose self-designed cancer peptide drug was partnered with Shanghai Pharmaceutical Group in 2010, and Paramax International, a Chinese contract research organization (CRO) that was sold to global CRO Research Pharmaceutical Services and, subsequently, to Warburg Pincus in 2011. Huang also worked with Forward Ventures, where she led partnering initiatives between Forward's portfolio companies and Chinese pharmaceutical companies.
On June 25, 2019, Seed was incorporated in the British Virgin Islands as a wholly owned subsidiary of Beyondspring, which was incorporated in the Cayman Islands in 2014 and now has a pipeline of cancer therapies in various stages of development.
The transition from scientist to entrepreneur taught her that “when going into business, one person cannot build by themselves, so I learned to be a builder and to give everybody credit, empowering them to do the best they can do.”
She had much the same view with the Lilly deal, as “they bring complementary skills to development in a speedy and collaborative manner.”
The relatively new company keeps growing. A month before the Lilly deal was cut, Seed appointed Edward Dongheng Liu, previously a partner and executive director at Epiphron Capital and a vice president of investment banking at Jeffries, as its chief financial officer. The Lilly deal will allow Seed to increase its employee roster, mostly in R&D. The company’s current research strategy is a virtual one, with CROs doing a lot of the work, Huang said.
Beyondspring stock (NASDAQ:BYSI) got a solid bounce on Nov. 13, climbing 7.05% with shares closing at $17.31 each.