Startups

Merck spinout grabs some assets and launches a quest for the Holy Grail in antibiotics R&D

Terry Roemer

Terry Roemer did a lot more than clean out his desk when he decided to leave Merck after a 13-year career developing antibodies at the pharma giant. With R&D chief Roger Perlmutter’s blessings, he also gathered some preclinical programs to take with him that now form the pipeline at his new, upstart biotech based in Union, New Jersey. And he’s working with a small team of ex-Merck scientists ready to get things moving toward the clinic.

Like the rest of the big pharmas, Merck has more R&D programs than it can consume. And it had already demonstrated a limited appetite for antibiotics research after bagging Cubist three years ago for $9.5 billion, shuttering the early-stage work right after the deal went through. So a spinout — with a promised payback from milestones and royalties — makes good sense here for accelerating the development side of things.

Roemer’s new company is Prokaryotics, which has taken up residence at a New Jersey incubator where he and his scientific colleagues have begun the business of developing some lead assets that they believe are the essential ingredients to an entirely novel antibiotic class that can conquer the drug resistance that frequently thwarts existing products.

“To be honest,” Roemer tells me, “we have a ways to go. The programs we in-licensed are up to lead optimization. Depending on the program, we have multiple years ahead of us to get into the clinic. But I’m not too concerned about that.”

What he is concerned about: Coming up “with the next new antibiotics class; a first-in-class agent. It’s a tremendous challenge, there’s a lot involved.”

Roemer and his colleagues at Merck caused a stir in research circles in the spring of 2016 with their preclinical work on a new approach to defeating deadly, drug-hesitant MRSA. They identified small molecules — tarocins — that threw a monkey wrench into the construction of MRSA cell walls, making them vulnerable to the usual run of beta-lactam antibiotics now in use. But Roemer stressed the team has broad ambitions to go far beyond the confines of tarocins and develop completely new gram negative programs for the next generation of beta-lactams.

Keith Bostian

Keith Bostian, an experienced biotech vet who set up the incubator where Prokaryotics is based, is taking the CEO spot in the company. He says that the plan now is to get started with some non-dilutive funding, looking to a variety of sources like BARDA and the Wellcome Trust eager to extend support to veteran teams out to develop some breakthrough antibiotics. Later, he says, they can get involved in some more traditional fundraising and alliances.

Public health officials have been raising the alarm for years that drug-resistant superbugs threaten more and more people each year around the globe, but despite a number of regulatory incentives, much of the early-stage work remains in the hands of biotechs. R&D is challenging in this field, it’s expensive, and the market can still rely on some standard remedies — including some incredibly cheap ones — for most cases.

But as Prokaryotics continues its work, Roemer and his team believe that the demand for new antibiotics can only grow, putting him on the right course for right now.


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