Eli Lilly gets glucose-sensing “smart insulin” via buyout of preclinical Protomer


Eli Lilly, already a leader in diabetes products, is building on its franchise with the acquisition of Protomer Technologies, a company developing next-generation diabetes drugs capable of sensing blood sugar levels and adjusting accordingly.

The two companies are already acquainted. Last November, Lilly led an equity investment in Protomer alongside the JDRF T1D Fund. The cash amount was not disclosed but in Wednesday’s buyout announcement, the companies said the initial investment gave Lilly a 14% stake in Protomer. According to Pitchbook, the November investment was a $6.6 million seed financing. The pharma giant is now acquiring the rest of Protomer that it does not already own.

Specific financial details of the latest deal were not disclosed other than to state that its value could top more than $1 billion if the Protomer technology achieves development and commercial milestones. Those milestones are a long way off. Protomer is still preclinical, but Lilly has the resources and the cash to get the startup’s lead program through clinical development and, if the biotech’s drug is approved, commercialize it.

Pasadena, California-based Protomer was founded in 2015. The startup is developing “smart therapeutics,” injectable drugs that can sense molecular activators in the body and automatically activate as needed. Protomer describes its platform technology as chemical-biology based. It develops therapeutic peptides and proteins whose activity is tunable and controlled by small molecules. The company’s lead disease target is diabetes.

Current insulin therapy may require multiple injections throughout the day, or administration of insulin from a pump. Speaking in a video posted to Protomer’s website from the Biotech Showcase 2020 event, CEO Alborz Mahdavi said his company’s insulin, given once a day, automatically detects increases in blood sugar levels and dynamically activates in response.

In the January 2020 video, Mahdavi said Protomer was at the stage of optimizing its lead drug candidate, leading to preclinical development. He added that the company would look to raise money in the next 12 to 18 months to continue development of the lead asset. That timeline is consistent with Wednesday’s acquisition by Lilly. Now instead of raising the cash for that research, the financial burden will be shouldered by the pharma giant.

“Glucose-sensing insulin is the next frontier and has the potential to revolutionize the treatment and quality of life of people with diabetes by dramatically improving both therapeutic efficacy and safety of insulin therapy,” Ruth Gimeno, vice president, diabetes research and clinical investigation at Lilly, said in a prepared statement.

Protomer’s pipeline includes another diabetes product candidate, a smart glucagon. Injectable glucagon is a rescue treatment used when blood sugar levels fall dangerously low. Mahdavi said that Protomer’s smart glucagon would eliminate the need to carry around a rescue glucagon kit.

Photo: Konrad Fiedler/Bloomberg, via Getty Images