Mer­ck’s can­cer R&D jug­ger­naut ties up to lit­tle Drag­on­fly’s nat­ur­al born killer plat­form — with bil­lions on the line

A lit­tle more than a year af­ter Cel­gene bel­lied up to the part­ner­ship ta­ble with $33 mil­lion in cash to al­ly it­self with the up­start crew at Drag­on­fly, Mer­ck has now fol­lowed be­hind in search of what they’re hop­ing is a game-chang­ing ap­proach to treat­ing sol­id tu­mors.

“There’s no com­pa­ny that knows sol­id tu­mors more than Mer­ck,” says Drag­on­fly CEO Bill Haney, who re­cent­ly jumped in­to biotech with a pair of new com­pa­nies look­ing to make their mark in dif­fer­ent fields.

Mer­ck nev­er likes to talk num­bers and some of the par­tic­u­lars are in short sup­ply. But this isn’t a small-dol­lar deal. 

“It’s sig­nif­i­cant­ly more at­trac­tive eco­nom­i­cal­ly,” says Haney, com­pared to Cel­gene.

Tyler Jacks

Cel­gene paid $8.3 mil­lion up­front per pro­gram, Haney tells me, and Mer­ck was in­spired to go deep­er than that for a mul­ti-pro­gram ef­fort. Add it all up, and Mer­ck has agreed to pay up to $695 mil­lion per pro­gram, all in, in­clud­ing mile­stones.

The deal marks an­oth­er big step up for Drag­on­fly, which has a ster­ling rep built around its high-pro­file sci­en­tif­ic founders.

There’s Tyler Jacks, an MIT pro­fes­sor, HH­MI in­ves­ti­ga­tor and di­rec­tor of the David H. Koch In­sti­tute for In­te­gra­tive Can­cer Re­search. Berke­ley’s David Raulet, whose back­ground as an ex­pert in NK cells and tu­mor im­munol­o­gy helped spot­light some of the big ideas Drag­on­fly is pur­su­ing, clear­ly played a big role with this deal. Haney, an en­tre­pre­neur and film­mak­er (work­ing on a doc­u­men­tary about No­bel prize win­ner Jim Al­li­son) with close con­tacts to the Cam­bridge/Boston biotech hub, is at the helm. 

The com­pa­ny’s plat­form cen­ters on TriN­KETs (Tri-spe­cif­ic, NK cell En­gager Ther­a­pies), a bind­ing mech­a­nism that links nat­ur­al killer cells to the pro­teins found on the sur­face of can­cer cells. And that kind of ap­proach, they be­lieve, can cre­ate a po­tent next-gen im­munother­a­py ap­proach — po­ten­tial­ly a big deal for a com­pa­ny like Mer­ck. NK cells have be­come a pop­u­lar tar­get in can­cer R&D over the last few years as I/O has swelled in im­por­tance.

David Raulet

Haney is mov­ing fast af­ter de­but­ing this biotech a lit­tle more than a year ago. The CEO tells me that Drag­on­fly is hard at it, grow­ing its staff from 15 to 35 with more em­ploy­ees to be re­cruit­ed soon. The group is work­ing on its own pipeline, with plans to be in the clin­ic next year. And there’s al­so a clear po­ten­tial for ad­di­tion­al mar­quee part­ners to be added — at the right time.

The first or­der of busi­ness now is to do a good job for the part­ners they have, says Haney, adding that they have walked away from oth­er deals. 

“In the next 6 months we’ll an­nounce ad­di­tion­al tar­gets with ad­di­tion­al part­ners,” he says.

Mer­ck, mean­while, con­tin­ues to ex­e­cute on its plans to build a port­fo­lio around the PD-1 star Keytru­da, which has been a game chang­er in can­cer treat­ment. The hun­dreds of check­point stud­ies it’s ei­ther han­dling it­self or work­ing on with oth­ers has helped shed a light on sol­id tu­mors, and Mer­ck’s Roger Perl­mut­ter is well known for his in­ter­est in new tech — so long as it fits his bud­get in R&D.


Im­age: Bill Haney. DRAG­ON­FLY

2023 Spot­light on the Fu­ture of Drug De­vel­op­ment for Small and Mid-Sized Biotechs

In the context of today’s global economic environment, there is an increasing need to work smarter, faster and leaner across all facets of the life sciences industry.  This is particularly true for small and mid-sized biotech companies, many of which are facing declining valuations and competing for increasingly limited funding to propel their science forward.  It is important to recognize that within this framework, many of these smaller companies already find themselves resource-challenged to design and manage clinical studies themselves because they don’t have large teams or in-house experts in navigating the various aspects of the drug development journey. This can be particularly challenging for the most complex and difficult to treat diseases where no previous pathway exists and patients are urgently awaiting breakthroughs.

Kristen Hege, Bristol Myers Squibb SVP, early clinical development, oncology/hematology and cell therapy (Illustration: Assistant Editor Kathy Wong for Endpoints News)

Q&A: Bris­tol My­er­s' Kris­ten Hege on cell ther­a­py, can­cer pa­tients and men­tor­ing the next gen­er­a­tion

Kristen Hege leads Bristol Myers Squibb’s early oncology discovery program carrying on from the same work at Celgene, which was acquired by BMS in 2019. She’s known for her early work in CAR-T, having pioneered the first CAR-T cell trial for solid tumors more than 25 years ago.

However, the eminent physician-scientist is more than just a drug developer mastermind. She’s also a practicing physician, mother to two young women, an avid backpacker and intersecting all those interests — a champion of young women and people of color in STEM and life sciences.

Endpoints Premium

Premium subscription required

Unlock this article along with other benefits by subscribing to one of our paid plans.

Gossamer Bio CEO Faheem Hasnain at Endpoints' #BIO22 panel (J.T. MacMillan Photography for Endpoints News)

Gos­samer’s Fa­heem Has­nain de­fends a round of pos­i­tive PAH da­ta as a clear win. But can these PhII re­sults stand up to scruti­ny?

Gossamer Bio $GOSS posted a statistically significant improvement for its primary endpoint in the key Phase II TORREY trial for lead drug seralutinib on Tuesday morning. But CEO Faheem Hasnain has some explaining to do on the important secondary of the crucial six-minute walk distance test — which will be the primary endpoint in Phase III — as the data on both endpoints fell short of expectations, missing one analyst’s bar on even modest success.

Endpoints Premium

Premium subscription required

Unlock this article along with other benefits by subscribing to one of our paid plans.

Spe­cial re­port 2022: Meet 20 women blaz­ing trails in bio­phar­ma R&D

When you run a special report for a fourth year, it can start feeling a little bit like a ritual. You go through the motions — in our case opening up nominations for top women in biopharma R&D and reviewing more than 500 entries — you make your choices of inclusion and exclusion. You host a ceremony.

But then things happen that remind you why you do it in the first place. Perhaps a Supreme Court rules to overturn the constitutional right to abortion and a group of women biotech leaders makes it clear they strongly dissent; perhaps new data on gender diversity in the industry come out that look all too similar to the old ones, suggesting women are still dramatically underrepresented at the top; perhaps protests and conflicts around the world put in stark terms the struggles that many women still face in earning the most basic recognition.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 154,100+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Phar­ma rep­u­ta­tion re­tains 'halo' even as pan­dem­ic me­dia cov­er­age re­cedes — sur­vey

The Covid-19 halo effect on the pharma industry is continuing, according to a new global study from Ipsos. The annual survey for the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) finds considerable goodwill from consumers across measures of trust, cooperation with governments, and advancing research and drug development.

“Despite the pandemic in many countries no longer being the top of mind concern generally – although it does remain the top concern as a health issue – the industry’s reputation has remained positive,” said Ipsos research director Thomas Fife-Schaw.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 154,100+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Mark McKenna, Prometheus Biosciences chairman & CEO

With clear PhII win in IBD, Prometheus thwarts Pfiz­er com­par­isons as it fol­lows Hu­mi­ra 'play­book'

Prometheus Biosciences reported a clear Phase II win in two inflammatory bowel disease conditions in a clinical development race with Pfizer, planting the biotech’s flag in a field of antibodies attempting to go against black box-cornered JAK inhibitors and AbbVie’s Humira.

Shares $RXDX have soared since the summer — a small dip last week notwithstanding when rival Pfizer teamed up with Roivant on a new company for their competing anti-TL1A monoclonal antibody. And they skyrocketed once again Wednesday morning, climbing from $36 apiece to more than $100 on the back of two Phase II studies: one placebo-controlled in ulcerative colitis and the other an open-label trial in patients with Crohn’s disease.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 154,100+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Graphic: Shutterstock

Prometheus moves to raise cash hours af­ter PhII da­ta leads to stock surge

After releasing better-than-anticipated data on two mid-stage studies Wednesday morning, Prometheus Biosciences’ CEO said the company would “take some time to assess” its next financing options.

It only needed about seven hours. Wednesday afternoon after the market closed, the biotech announced it would seek $250 million through an equity offering as the company looks to edge out anti-TL1A competitor Pfizer and its new partner Roivant.

Endpoints News

Keep reading Endpoints with a free subscription

Unlock this story instantly and join 154,100+ biopharma pros reading Endpoints daily — and it's free.

Enhertu researcher Ian Krop speaks during Wednesday's SABCS press conference (MedMeetingImages/Todd Buchanan via SABCS)

SABCS roundup: No­var­tis shows two-year PFS in breast can­cer sub­groups; As­traZeneca re­veals more En­her­tu da­ta

The San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium is taking place this week, and so far, some of the Big Pharmas are turning out new trial data about some of the biggest drugs in the space.

First off, Novartis announced that its drug, Kisqali, showed about a year of progression-free survival in patients with different types of first-line metastatic breast cancer. The CDK 4/6 drug was first approved by the FDA in 2017, setting it up in direct competition against Pfizer’s Ibrance.

Big Phar­mas team up with lo­cal Sin­ga­pore or­ga­ni­za­tions to boost man­u­fac­tur­ing

Singapore has long established itself as a major hub for pharma manufacturing, and now several big players are looking to further cement their presence in the Lion City.

Takeda, Sanofi and GSK are forming a partnership with the Singapore-based Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) and several local academic institutions, including the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, its enterprise company called NTUitive and Singapore Institute of Technology to provide a greater boost to the manufacturing of biologics.