Fauna Bio inks $494m obesity collaboration with Lilly

Partnership aims to identify new obesity drug targets using AI discovery platform powered by data from disease-resistant mammals.

Longevity biotech Fauna Bio has signed a multi-year collaboration agreement with pharma giant Lilly worth up to $494 million for preclinical drug discovery in obesity. The partnership centers on Fauna’s AI drug discovery platform, which the California-based company says is the “world’s first” to integrate data from human patients and animals that naturally resist disease.

Fauna’s AI platform, called Convergence, analyzes data collected from mammals, particularly those that exhibit the protective adaptations of hibernation and other extreme biology, to identify potential human drug targets. The AI identifies potential drug targets by leveraging genomic analyses, including thousands of transcriptomes, proteomes, and epigenomes across hundreds of mammal species, including 65 hibernators.

“Fauna Bio brings a unique approach to the discovery of novel targets for obesity,” said Dr Ruth Gimeno, head of diabetes, obesity and cardiometabolic research at Lilly. “We look forward to working with the Fauna Bio team to realize the value of their platform and discover more effective treatments for patients with obesity.”

Longevity.Technology: Targeting obesity has significant ramifications for human longevity. As GLP-1 inhibitors like semaglutide are already showing, the potential impact of a successful obesity drug extends far beyond weight loss – think diabetes, cardiovascular, and potentially even neurodegenerative disease. Not only is today’s news a huge validation of Fauna’s unique approach to drug discovery, it also confirms that pharma companies are leaving no stone unturned when it comes to unearthing the next generation of obesity drugs. We caught up with Fauna Bio co-founder and CEO Ashley Zehnder to learn more.

Under the terms of the Lilly deal, Fauna will receive an (undisclosed) upfront payment, including an equity investment. The company is eligible to receive pre-clinical, clinical and commercial milestone payments, as well as royalties on product sales, up to an aggregate $494 million. It’s a significant milestone for the female-led biotech, which was only founded in 2018.

“We’re excited about it for sure – it’s going to be a great collaboration,” says the typically understated Zehnder. “It’s going to be a way for us to use all the different parts of the platform in a really impactful way.”

Fauna Bio inks $494m obesity collaboration with Lilly
Ashley Zehnder is CEO of Fauna Bio,

A novel discovery approach

While the actual amount of the upfront payment and investment are not being disclosed at this time, Zehnder says the deal is “comparable to” other early target stage discovery deals.

“Let me put it this way, it’s sizable enough that we’re hiring, and we gave everybody bonuses this year,” she adds. “And it definitely gives us quite a bit of runway, which is great, particularly in the current market.”

While the Lilly deal is undoubtedly a coup for Fauna, Zehnder says that the company’s approach to drug discovery has generated interest from multiple pharma companies.

“Pharma are always trying to find novel approaches for complex health challenges, and they sometimes run into a wall in terms of where to look next,” she says. “And this is not just in obesity – we’ve talked to pharma in other disease areas like cardiac disease and neurodegeneration. They’re all trying to figure out what’s next – how to think about these disease areas in a different way. And that’s why they come to us.”

What’s next for obesity?

Obesity is undoubtedly a complex health challenge and Zehnder says that “everyone” is trying to figure out what’s next after GLP-1.

“But there’s a limit to what you can get by sequencing more in different human populations, and there’s also a limit to what you can get from looking in the traditional mouse and rat models that people are normally using,” she says.

According to Zehnder, the hibernation data models developed by Fauna are of particular interest in obesity for a couple of reasons, starting with understanding how to modify mammalian metabolism.

“Figuring out how to fundamentally change metabolic rate is important, particularly for patients that have lost a significant amount of weight,” she says. “It’s been well documented that those patients often reset their metabolic rate to a much lower level, it makes it much harder for them to keep that weight off and much easier for them to regain weight – sometimes even more than they lost. There are very few natural models of sustained changes in energy expenditure and our hibernation models are among the best that’s out there.”

Another key area that Fauna can provide insight into is the preservation of lean muscle mass.

“Some of the animals we look at are motionless under the ground for seven to nine months of the year,” says Zehnder. “These animals start to rebuild lean muscle mass toward the latter part of hibernation as they’re about to emerge in the spring. But how do they do that? That’s a fascinating biology, and so, as part of this collaboration, we’ll be looking at not only control of energy, but also strategies to maintain and build lean muscle.”

In terms of what sparked Lilly to nail down its collaboration with Fauna, Zehnder says that her company had already sequenced some compelling datasets related to obesity.

“We were able to align those with human genetic networks and show really significant enrichment with some of the human networks – pharma always like to see that,” she adds. “Also, as we’ve advanced our own pipeline, the pharma companies can see that real drugs are coming out of it with compelling in vivo data in high areas of high unmet need. And that has driven more interest in the platform.”

Next steps

The simple aim of Fauna’s collaboration with Lilly is to find novel targets in obesity that can deliver meaningful impacts for patients. And Zehnder says there aren’t many limitations to the potential approach.

“As a big pharma, they have a lot of different tools, so they’re really quite open in terms of modality,” she says. “Rather than just focusing on small molecule druggable targets or antibody targets, they are looking for the most compelling biology, which is exciting for us, because it means we can really use the platform to its full extent.”

Naturally, Fauna is also talking to other pharma companies who are interested in leveraging its platform for discovery in other disease areas.

“We’d like to show that we can use this platform for multiple disease areas, particularly in cardiovascular and CNS, we’ve got some compelling datasets for those already, and I think there’s a lot more to mine there,” says Zehnder. “Also, I don’t think anybody is super satisfied with the clinical success of the recent approved Alzheimer’s drugs, and pharma are already looking for what’s next, what’s going to be better for patients.”

As far as its own internal drug development programs go, Fauna expects that some will soon be heading into IND-enabling studies. All based on targets that came out of its AI platform.

“We’ve been generating more data over the last quarter of our lead program in cardiopulmonary disease, showing a really compelling effect on vascular changes within the lung and pulmonary pressure,” says Zehnder. “Also in that program, we got data from an academic collaboration about a week ago that looks very compelling. We’ve derived novel chemistry and filed a series of patents in October, and we’ll be testing those in those animal models this year. The goal for 2024 is to get that program into IND-enabling studies.”

Mammalian data and human health

So why is all this data collected from animals so relevant to human health? Zehnder points out that humans, of course, are mammals too, and, as a result, are packed full of mammalian biology.

“It’s really fascinating when you start to look at the comparative genomics and how these animals are all linked together in one evolutionary tree,” she says. “We know, at a single base pair level, how conserved genes are across almost every mammal.”

Zehnder says that “really powerful biology” is revealed once you find trends that are consistent across species.

“Not surprisingly, some of those highly conserved genes haven’t changed over hundreds of millions of years, are doing something important,” she adds. “And if you can narrow in on those genes more rapidly, and figure out what they’re doing in disease, then those are the ones that are driving disease biology. But if you only look at humans, it’s hard to figure this out, because it’s as diverse as we are, we are only one species.”

“You need to look at the genes that function the same across all mammals – it’s those core genes that are driving the important disease biology. But you can’t find those genes quickly without using this evolutionary approach.”

READ MORE: Drug discovery secrets of the animal kingdom