With its Big Pharma partner Pfizer in hot pursuit of an approval for their checkpoint inhibitor, the disaster-prone Merck KGaA is splurging on a new deal with Vertex $VRTX that will beef up its oncology pipeline. The German company is spending $230 million upfront to license rights to two clinical-stage and two preclinical programs from the Boston biotech, convinced that they’re starting down pathways on DNA repair and immuno-oncology that will lead them to a new product or two.
Merck KGaA is taking over programs on an ataxia telangiectasia and Rad3 related (ATR) protein kinase inhibitor program — covering VX-970 and VX-803 – as well as a DNA-dependent protein kinase (DNA-PK) inhibitor program for VX-984.
The most advanced of these efforts is VX-970, now in 10 Phase I and Phase II studies in various tumor types and patient subtypes. Vertex was encouraged to amp up its work on this drug after reviewing preclinical data, which was reviewed at ASCO. The drugs are designed to throw a monkey wrench at mechanisms for DNA repair to ensure the destruction of cancer cells, a well studied strategy in oncology.
The preclinical programs cover one shot at a first-in-class immuno-oncology drug with potential to be combined with a checkpoint and a separate, novel target in I/O.
Merck KGaA has been through multiple reorganizations over the years as it steered through one clinical disaster after the next. It’s been well over a decade since its last blockbuster, but the team there is hopeful that they are finally on to something with durable potential. Pfizer paid a record $850 million upfront to partner on their checkpoint program, which Merck KGaA believes marks a turning point for the company.
“The Vertex R&D team has produced a portfolio of first-in-class compounds with the potential to enhance the therapy of multiple cancers,” said Jeffrey Leiden, MD, PhD, Chairman, President and CEO of Vertex. “We are pleased to partner with Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, a leader in oncology with exciting complementary assets that will help fully realize the value of these unique compounds and accelerate the programs’ potential benefits for patients.”
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