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

The DCT-OS: A Tech­nol­o­gy-first Op­er­at­ing Sys­tem - En­abling Clin­i­cal Tri­als

As technology-enabled clinical research becomes the new normal, an integrated decentralized clinical trial operating system can ensure quality, deliver consistency and improve the patient experience.

The increasing availability of COVID-19 vaccines has many of us looking forward to a time when everyday things return to a state of normal. Schools and teachers are returning to classrooms, offices and small businesses are reopening, and there’s a palpable sense of optimism that the often-awkward adjustments we’ve all made personally and professionally in the last year are behind us, never to return. In the world of clinical research, however, some pandemic-necessitated adjustments are proving to be more than emergency stopgap measures to ensure trial continuity — and numerous decentralized clinical trial (DCT) tools and methodologies employed within the last year are likely here to stay as part of biopharma’s new normal.

Onno van de Stolpe, Galapagos CEO (Thierry Roge/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images)

Gala­pa­gos chops in­to their pipeline, drop­ping core fields and re­or­ga­niz­ing R&D as the BD team hunts for some­thing 'trans­for­ma­tive'

Just 5 months after Gilead gutted its rich partnership with Galapagos following a bitter setback at the FDA, the Belgian biotech is hunkering down and chopping the pipeline in an effort to conserve cash while their BD team pursues a mission to find a “transformative” deal for the company.

The filgotinib disaster didn’t warrant a mention as Galapagos laid out its Darwinian restructuring plans. Forced to make choices, the company is ditching its IPF molecule ’1205, while moving ahead with a Phase II IPF study for its chitinase inhibitor ’4617.

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Mod­er­na CEO brush­es off US sup­port for IP waiv­er, eyes more than $19B in Covid-19 vac­cine sales in 2021

Moderna is definitively more concerned with keeping pace with Pfizer in the race to vaccinate the world against Covid-19 than it is with Wednesday’s decision from the Biden administration to back an intellectual property waiver that aims to increase vaccine supplies worldwide.

In its first quarter earnings call on Thursday, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel shrugged off any suggestion that the newly US-backed intellectual property waiver would impact his company’s vaccine or bottom line. Still, the company’s stock price fell by about 9% in early morning trading.

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'Chang­ing the whole game of drug dis­cov­ery': Leg­endary R&D vet Roger Perl­mut­ter leaps back in­to work as a biotech CEO

Roger Perlmutter needs no introduction to anyone remotely involved in biopharma. As the R&D chief first at Amgen and then Merck, he’s built a stellar reputation and a prolific career steering new drugs toward the market for everything from cancer to infectious diseases.

But for years, he’s also held a less known title: science partner at The Column Group, where he’s regularly consulted about the various ideas the VCs had for new startups.

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Ad­comm splits slight­ly in fa­vor of FDA ap­prov­ing Chemo­Cen­tryx’s rare dis­ease drug

The FDA’s Arthritis Advisory Committee on Thursday voted 10 for and 8 against the approval of ChemoCentryx’s $CCXI investigational drug avacopan as a treatment for adults with a rare and serious disease known as anti-neutrophil cytoplasmic autoantibody (ANCA)-vasculitis.

The vote on whether the FDA should approve the drug was preceded by a split vote of 9 to 9 on whether the efficacy data support approval, and 10 to 8 that the safety profile of avacopan is adequate enough to support approval.

Drug pric­ing watch­dog joins the cho­rus of crit­ics on Bio­gen's ad­u­canum­ab: What about charg­ing $2,560 per year?

As if Biogen’s aducanumab isn’t controversial enough, the researchers at drug pricing watchdog ICER have drawn up the contours of a new debate: If the therapy does get approved for Alzheimer’s by June, what price should it command?

Their answer: At most $8,290 per year — and perhaps as little as $2,560.

Even at the top of the range, the proposed price is a fraction of the $50,000 that Wall Street has reportedly come to expect (although RBC analyst Brian Abrahams puts the consensus figure at $11.5K). With critics, including experts on the FDA’s advisory committee, making their fierce opposition to aducanumab’s approval loud and clear, the pricing pressure adds one extra wrinkle Biogen CEO Michel Vounatsos doesn’t need as he orders full-steam preparation for a launch.

Biden ad­min­is­tra­tion backs a po­lar­iz­ing pro­pos­al to waive IP for all Covid-19 vac­cines

In a surprise U-turn, the Biden administration said Wednesday that it will support a proposal at the World Trade Organization to temporarily waive intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines.

The proposal, backed by South Africa and India at the WTO, seeks to help developing countries with limited vaccine supplies. The US and Europe historically opposed the proposal, saying IP should be protected because it incentivizes new drug and vaccine development.

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FDA ex­tends re­search agree­ment with MIT-li­censed or­gan-on-chip sys­tems

The FDA on Wednesday extended its four-year agreement with CN Bio, a developer of single- and multi-organ-on-chip systems used for drug discovery, for another three years.

CN Bio said the scope of the research performed by the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research has expanded to include the exploration of the company’s lung-on-a-chip system to help with the agency’s evaluation of inhaled drugs, in addition to the agency’s work on its liver model.

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In quest to meet user fee goals, FDA’s per­for­mance con­tin­ues down­ward trend

A recent update to the FDA’s running tally of how it’s meeting its user fee-related performance goals during the pandemic shows an agency that is not out of the woods yet.

The latest numbers reveal that for a second straight quarter in 2021, the FDA has met its user fee goal dates for 93% of original new drug applications, which compares with 94% and 98% for the previous two quarters in 2020, respectively.

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