Dean Li, Merck

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.

Fred Aslan

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.

The Price of Re­lief: Ex­plor­ing So­lu­tions to the Ris­ing Costs of On­col­o­gy Drugs

In 2020, The National Cancer Institute estimated about 1.8 million new cases of cancer diagnosed in the United States, while the costs associated with treatment therapies continued to escalate. Given the current legislative climate on drug pricing, it’s never been more important to look at the evolution of drug pricing globally and control concerns of sustainable and affordable treatments in oncology.

Lat­est news on Pfiz­er's $3B+ JAK1 win; Pacts over M&A at #JPM22; 2021 by the num­bers; Bio­gen's Aduhelm reck­on­ing; The sto­ry of sotro­vimab; and more

Welcome back to Endpoints Weekly, your review of the week’s top biopharma headlines. Want this in your inbox every Saturday morning? Current Endpoints readers can visit their reader profile to add Endpoints Weekly. New to Endpoints? Sign up here.

For those of you who attended #JPM22 in any shape or form, we hope you had a fruitful time. Regardless of how you spent the past hectic week, may your weekend be just what you need it to be.

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A $3B+ peak sales win? Pfiz­er thinks so, as FDA of­fers a tardy green light to its JAK1 drug abroc­i­tinib

Back in the fall of 2020, newly crowned Pfizer chief Albert Bourla confidently put their JAK1 inhibitor abrocitinib at the top of the list of blockbuster drugs in the late-stage pipeline with a $3 billion-plus peak sales estimate.

Since then it’s been subjected to serious criticism for the safety warnings associated with the class, held back by a cautious FDA and questioned when researchers rolled out a top-line boast that their heavyweight contender had beaten the champ in the field of atopic dermatitis — Dupixent — in a head-to-head study.

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Robert Califf, FDA commissioner nominee (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/Sipa via AP Images)

Rob Califf ad­vances as Biden's FDA nom­i­nee, with a close com­mit­tee vote

Rob Califf’s second confirmation process as FDA commissioner is already much more difficult than his near unanimous confirmation under the Obama administration.

The Senate Health Committee on Thursday voted 13-8 in favor of advancing Califf’s nomination to a full Senate vote. Several Democrats voted against Califf, including Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Maggie Hassan. Several other Democrats who aren’t on the committee, like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, also said Thursday that they would not vote for Califf. Markey, Hassan and Manchin all previously expressed reservations about the prospect of Janet Woodcock as an FDA commissioner nominee too.

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Michel Vounatsos, Biogen CEO (World Economic Forum/Ciaran McCrickard)

Bio­gen vows to fight CM­S' draft cov­er­age de­ci­sion for Aduhelm be­fore April fi­nal­iza­tion

Biogen executives made clear in an investor call Thursday they are not preparing to run a new CMS-approved clinical trial for their controversial Alzheimer’s drug anytime soon.

As requested in a draft national coverage decision from CMS earlier this week, Biogen and other anti-amyloid drugs will need to show “a meaningful improvement in health outcomes” for Alzheimer’s patients in a randomized, placebo-controlled trial to get paid for their drugs, rather than just the reduction in amyloid plaques that won Aduhelm its accelerated approval in June.

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CRO own­er pleads guilty to ob­struct­ing FDA in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­to fal­si­fied clin­i­cal tri­al da­ta

The co-owner of a Florida-based clinical research site pleaded guilty to lying to an FDA investigator during a 2017 inspection, revealing that she falsely portrayed part of a GlaxoSmithKline pediatric asthma study as legitimate, when in fact she knew that certain data had been falsified, the Department of Justice said Wednesday.

Three other employees — Yvelice Villaman Bencosme, Lisett Raventos and Maytee Lledo — previously pleaded guilty and were sentenced in connection with falsifying data associated with the trial at the CRO Unlimited Medical Research.

Susan Galbraith, AstraZeneca EVP, Oncology R&D

Can­cer pow­er­house As­traZeneca rolls the dice on a $75M cash bet on a buzzy up­start in the on­col­o­gy field

After establishing itself in the front ranks of cancer drug developers and marketers, AstraZeneca is putting its scientific shoulder — and a significant amount of cash — behind the wheel of a brash new upstart in the biotech world.

The pharma giant trumpeted news this morning that it is handing over $75 million upfront to ally itself with Scorpion Therapeutics, one of those biotechs that was newly birthed by some top scientific, venture and executive talent and bequeathed with a fortune by way of a bankroll to advance an only hazily explained drug platform. And they are still very much in the discovery and preclinical phase.

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‘Skin­ny la­bels’ on gener­ics can save pa­tients mon­ey, re­search shows, but re­cent court de­ci­sions cloud fu­ture

New research shows how generic drug companies can successfully market a limited number of approved indications for a brand name drug, prior to coming to market for all of the indications. But several recent court decisions have created a layer of uncertainty around these so-called “skinny” labels.

While courts have generally allowed generic manufacturers to use their statutorily permitted skinny-label approvals, last summer, a federal circuit court found that Teva Pharmaceuticals was liable for inducing prescribers and patients to infringe GlaxoSmithKline’s patents through advertising and marketing practices that suggested Teva’s generic, with its skinny label, could be employed for the patented uses.

A patient in Alaska receiving an antibody infusion to prevent Covid hospitalizations in September. All but one of these treatments has been rendered useless by Omicron (Rick Bowmer/AP Images)

How a tiny Swiss lab and two old blood sam­ples cre­at­ed one of the on­ly ef­fec­tive drugs against Omi­cron (and why we have so lit­tle of it)

Exactly a decade before a novel coronavirus broke out in Wuhan, Davide Corti — a newly-minted immunologist with frameless glasses and a quick laugh — walked into a cramped lab on the top floor of an office building two hours outside Zurich. He had only enough money for two technicians and the ceiling was so low in parts that short stature was a job requirement, but Corti believed it’d be enough to test an idea he thought could change medicine.

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