Dean Li kicks off Merck's post-Roger Perlmutter era by teaming with Artiva and its off-the-shelf CAR-NK tech
Even though Dean Li has now officially taken over for Roger Perlmutter as R&D chief, Merck’s appetite for dealmaking continues to be ravenous.
Li struck his first big deal at the helm Thursday morning, hammering out a collaboration with Artiva Biotherapeutics that could earn the biotech nearly $1.9 billion when all is said and done. It’s a quick rise and validation for Artiva, which just last June launched with a $78 million Series A.
The agreement focuses on Artiva’s off-the-shelf CAR-NK cell manufacturing platform, with Merck choosing two solid tumor targets for the biotech to tackle. There’s also an option for a third program. Artiva will get $30 million upfront for the first two candidates and another $15 million should the option be exercised.
And the milestones? Artiva can earn up to $612 million for each program, bringing the total potential payout to $1.881 billion.
Artiva’s big idea centers around trying to upscale production of NK cell therapies so they can be more widely available in places like outpatient and community settings. The biotech arose through a partnership with the South Korean biotech Green Cross LabCell, which had built a natural killer cell factory but hadn’t yet developed any drugs outside the country.
By owning the manufacturing process, Artiva is looking to create therapies with the efficacy of the more prominent CAR-Ts but few, if any, of the liabilities, CEO Fred Aslan said. One of CAR-NK cell therapy’s benefits over CAR-T is that, unlike the T cells, NK cells can be delivered to patients who aren’t the donor. With CAR-Ts, physicians can take cells out of a patient but only place them back into that same individual after they’ve been re-engineered.
Thanks in part to the work done over the last 10 years by Green Cross, Artiva can not only develop NK cell therapies, but preserve, freeze and ship them without the loss of quality. When used in an outpatient setting, for example, physicians need only to thaw the IV bags to prepare them for patients.
That scalability is ultimately what attracted Merck and other Big Pharma companies in the first place, Aslan said. The fact that Artiva is already starting clinical trials on some in-house programs, using products that have been shipped while cryopreserved, is a sign the company is ready to take it to the next level, he added.
Most pharma companies have taken “a watchful, waiting approach until it’s clear that there’s a biologics business model available for cell therapy,” Aslan told Endpoints News. Artiva believes that’s exactly what they have, “because of our manufacturing first approach, and our ability to turn cell therapy into a biologics business model that pharma is used to.”
Merck and Artiva aren’t disclosing what Thursday’s targets are, only that they involve antigens that present on solid tumors and are completely separate from Artiva’s current candidates. Artiva will carry development through the first manufacturing campaign and IND studies, at which point Merck will take over responsibility.
Mum’s also the word on the timelines for these therapies, though COO Peter Flynn said they have a good idea how long development could take based on previous markers by the internal programs.