Merck doubles down on Moderna’s mRNA cancer vaccines, paying $125M to partner on KRAS shared antigen strategy

Merck and its R&D chief Roger Perlmutter are betting big on their relationship with Moderna, paying $125 million for a chunk of Series H equity in the messenger RNA pioneer as they add a major collaboration on an off-the-shelf approach to cancers with KRAS mutations.

Roger Perlmutter

In an interview previewing the announcement, CEO Stephane Bancel and cancer research chief Tal Zaks noted that Merck plans to test this in combination with Keytruda, its star checkpoint inhibitor, which has faced a tough challenge in KRAS.

Their shared antigen cancer vaccine, mRNA-5671, encodes for four of the most common kind of KRAS mutations — a well known driver for large segments of patients suffering from non-small cell lung cancer, colorectal cancer and pancreatic cancer. KRAS mutations can serve as tumor rejection epitopes, the biotech explains, which can spark an immune response — a strategy that would have obvious utility as a companion to a checkpoint on hard-to-hit targets.

As a prime target in oncology, it’s also worth noting that KRAS has been one of the toughest targets in cancer R&D.

While Merck is a busy player involved in hundreds of partnerships, it’s fairly unusual for the pharma giant to undertake the proof-of-concept work itself, let alone make a substantial buy-in like this. Under the agreement, there are shared costs for the program along with a split on any profits that might lie ahead.

Tal Zaks

Up to now Moderna and Merck, which initially paid $200 million to partner with the biotech on cancer, have focused on personalized cancer vaccines that are customized for each patient. The shared antigen approach has been tried at least once by rival CureVac — on prostate cancer — unsuccessfully. But Zaks says he’s not discouraged by any other setbacks.

“We took it through its preclinical paces last year,” says Zaks about mRNA-5671. They’ve seen how it could work in one patient, in addition to their lab work. And he offers their tech platform and the addition of Keytruda as added reasons for confidence.

“Merck has a very high bar on the science,” notes Bancel. “This is getting them to want to do more.”

Moderna has been building an early-stage pipeline for mRNA that has attracted some avid backers like Merck and more than its share of flak by a chorus of doubters. Only some solid human data is going to settle that debate — and now they’re on track for getting it.

In the meantime, most Moderna watchers are waiting to see when the private unicorn biotech with its $7 billion to $7.5 billion valuation will shoot for an IPO. I’m no closer in finding out what the timeline is there, but I’ll keep asking the question.

Image: Stephane Bancel, YouTube

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Sr. Manager, Regulatory Affairs, CMC
CytomX Therapeutics San Francisco, CA
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