BioPharma, Pharma

Eli Lilly Places a Small Bet on Confo’s Early-Stage, Non-Opioid Pain Drug

Eli Lilly is paying $40 million up front for rights to a Confo Therapeutics drug in Phase 1 testing as a potential treatment for neuropathic pain. Confo develops drugs that target G-protein coupled receptors.

The pain drug market has many products, but there’s still a need for pills with better properties, such as avoiding addiction. Eli Lilly sees potential in the non-opioid pain drug research from Confo Therapeutics and it’s paying $40 million for rights to the biotech’s most advanced program.

The sum is an upfront payment. According to terms of the deal announced Thursday, Indianapolis-based Lilly gets global rights to the Confo drug, CFTX-1554, as well as back-up compounds. As the research progresses, Confo could earn up to $590 million in milestone payments per program, plus royalties if any of these drug candidates reach the market.

Belgium-based Confo develops drugs that target G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs), receptors found throughout the body that are involved in a wide range of physiological functions. While there are many GPCR-targeting drugs on the market, drug hunters have been searching for ways to hit GPCRs thought to be undruggable. Confo, which spun out of Vrije Universiteit Brussel in 2015, says its technology stabilizes GPCRs to address receptors that were previously inaccessible as drug targets.

The lead Confo program, CFTX-1554, targets the angiotensin II type 2 receptor (AT2R), a GPCR that has been studied for its role in pain. In particular, this receptor is thought to be a promising target for neuropathic pain, which stems from damage to nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord. Cancer patients can experience neuropathic pain. It’s also associated with diabetic nephropathy and shingles, among other conditions. The Confo drug is small molecule designed to block AT2R.

The Phase 1 clinical trial is currently enrolling healthy volunteers and will evaluate multiple doses of CFTX-1554. Lilly won’t pick up development of the program until after Phase 1. The deal gives Confo the option to participate in the funding of future development programs after they show clinical proof of concept. With CFTX-1554, Lilly adds a fourth pain drug to its pipeline. The pharma giant has reached mid-stage clinical development with small molecules that address the targets P2X7, SSTR4, and TRPA1.

“CFTX-1554’s progression through the clinic will benefit from Lilly’s experience and global organization, while we will continue to develop and expand our growing, innovative pipeline of GPCR-targeted assets, both small molecules and biologics,” Confo CEO Cedric Ververken said in a prepared statement.

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Advances in GPCR research have led to several investments and deals in the past year. In early 2022, GPCR startup Septerna launched with $100 million to develop drugs for endocrinology, the central nervous system, metabolic disease, and inflammation. Last fall, AbbVie paid $255 million to acquire DJS Antibodies, a biotech whose technology discovers antibodies that can hit GPCRs. And in January, Structure Therapeutics raised $161 million from its IPO to finance clinical development of its GPCR-targeting drugs for metabolic disorders and cardiopulmonary indications.

Photo by Flickr user Jernej Furman via a Creative Commons license