After going ‘crazy’ over the science, Merck signs up a new partner in the hunt for an HIV cure
Less than a year after inking a $100 million licensing deal with German giant Bayer, Dewpoint Therapeutics has scored another big-time contract, this time with Merck. And this collaboration came together in a particularly unusual fashion.
Merck and Dewpoint have agreed on a partnership that will provide the pharma giant with access to the Boston-based biotech’s biomolecular condensate technology in order to develop treatments, and potentially a cure, for the HIV virus. Dewpoint, in turn, will receive up to $305 million in upfront and milestone payments as well as royalties for any approved product.
Bruce Beutel, Dewpoint’s COO, worked at Merck for several years before joining the biotech, and said he kept in touch with his former colleagues to bring about a scientific “meeting of the minds” between Dewpoint executive VP Ann Kwong and and Daria Hazuda, CSO of Merck’s MRL Cambridge Exploratory Science Center.
“[The meeting] was obviously very successful, and I think what came out of that was the scientists on both sides really were pushing the business people going, ‘You have to find a way to make this work,’” Beutel said. “That’s always the best; so often in business development it’s the opposite.”
“There was no one from BD on our side but there were two guys from BD on the Merck side in the back of the room,” Kwong added. “Daria and I just sat down at the end of a long table and we just went crazy for about an hour, hour and a half talking virality. It was so much fun.”
The rapport shared by the scientists allowed the companies to quickly iron out their contract. Beutel said they only needed about two and a half months to work everything out, moving at a breakneck pace for the pharma industry.
“When I got up from the table, I turned around and the two BD guys were sitting there and their mouths were literally hanging open,” Kwong said with a laugh.
Dewpoint itself focuses its research on biomolecular condensates — droplet-like structures that form dynamically within cells when diverse “communities” of proteins, RNAs and other biomolecules come together through phase separation. Condensates have been known to scientists for more than a century, but Dewpoint aims to study how such communities interact and hopefully create new treatments for diseases.
“It’s like when you have oil and vinegar and you shake it up and you see those little bubbles,” Kwong said. “Cells use this to concentrate and separate communities of biomolecules that usually involve nucleic acids and different kinds of proteins.”
The deal Dewpoint signed with Bayer, agreed to last November, focused on developing the biotech’s condensate library and treating cardiovascular and gynecological diseases.
As for the Merck collaboration, modern HIV treatments can suppress viral loads to undetectable levels, but the virus remains latent in certain cells and virus counts will rise if treatment is discontinued. Beutel and Kwong are keeping the scientific nuts and bolts under wraps, but essentially confirmed their tech will in some shape or form target latent HIV-infected cells.
What they will divulge is how their tech could potentially be applied to fighting HIV in a general sense. By manipulating how communities within cells interact, a whole new world of possibilities opens up, Beutel said.
“In the case of HIV, there will be condensates that are involved in the viral life cycle, and we’re going to be able to modulate that in a way that previous HIV discovery efforts simply ignored,” Beutel said. “That’s going to let you do new things, and hopefully affect a cure like we’re talking about, in a way that you just couldn’t envision doing when you were focusing on the individual molecular targets.”
This kind of research into biomolecular condensates is still quite new, and Dewpoint is years away from producing a clinical product, per Beutel. But that doesn’t mean they will stop searching for that Holy Grail — finding the elusive cure for HIV.
“You have to deal with the latent integrated virus and all of that, so this is really the major focus,” Kwong said.