Drug Development

Neoantigens beckon Merck into a $200M cancer collaboration with Moderna

Now that Galena has added fresh evidence that first-gen cancer vaccines make for a poor R&D program, Merck is betting $200 million upfront that the next-gen neoantigen approach to personalized cancer vaccines can succeed where all else has failed.

Merck is tying up with the mRNA specialists at Cambridge, MA-based Moderna, which has inked a long lineup of marquee partnerships. The big idea here is that each person’s cancer cells present unique “neoantigens” that can be used to tailor a cancer vaccine for each patient.

That’s a radical idea that has gained considerable steam in recent months, with Gritstone and Neon Therapeutics — paired now with Bristol-Myers on Opdivo — rounding up significant venture cash. Biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong has also jumped into the game, including it in its growing slate of cancer R&D work in a group of startups.

Moderna says it has already set up a manufacturing system that can be used to create these personalized vaccines in a matter of weeks. And Merck will use the partnership to advance new combination therapies that include its checkpoint inhibitor Keytruda.

The way the deal works, Moderna notes in its statement, is that Merck can step up after it sees some evidence in humans that the tech is working as planned. After human proof-of-concept, if Merck wants to opt in they can pay a significant milestone and then both companies can share the cost on Phase III and commercializations, profiting equally.

Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel says they can jump into the clinic next year.

The deal marks another rare pact by Merck R&D chief Roger Perlmutter, who’s been carefully

Roger Perlmutter, President, Merck Research Laboratories

Roger Perlmutter, President, Merck Research Laboratories

focused on making Keytruda a foundation franchise that can sustain the company for years to come. While Merck has been a couple of steps behind Bristol-Myers in gaining market share, Perlmutter’s not settling for a second place finish.

“Combining immunotherapy with vaccine technology may be a new path toward improving outcomes for patients,” said Perlmutter, president, Merck Research Laboratories. “While the area of personalized cancer vaccine research has faced challenges in the past, there have been many recent advances, and we believe that working with Moderna to combine an immuno-oncology approach, using KEYTRUDA, with mRNA-based personalized cancer vaccines may have the potential to transform the treatment of cancer.”

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