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 home run count: The $100M+ mega-round boom in biotech in­spired a $6.7B feed­ing fren­zy — so far this year

Over the last 6 months there’s been a blizzard of money piling up drifts of the green stuff through the biotech landscape. And the forecast calls for more cash windfalls ahead.

Even as a global pandemic has killed more than half a million people, blighted economies and divided nations over the proper response, it’s also helped ignite an unprecedented burst of big-time investing. And not just in Covid-19 deals, as we’ve looked at before.

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Regeneron CEO Leonard Schleifer speaks at a meeting with President Donald Trump, members of the Coronavirus Task Force, and pharmaceutical executives in the Cabinet Room of the White House (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

OWS shifts spot­light to drugs to fight Covid-19, hand­ing Re­gen­eron $450M to be­gin large scale man­u­fac­tur­ing in the US

The US government is on a spending spree. And after committing billions to vaccines defense operations are now doling out more of the big bucks through Operation Warp Speed to back a rapid flip of a drug into the market to stop Covid-19 from ravaging patients — possibly inside of 2 months.

The beneficiary this morning is Regeneron, the big biotech engaged in a frenzied race to develop an antibody cocktail called REGN-COV2 that just started a late-stage program to prove its worth in fighting the virus. BARDA and the Department of Defense are awarding Regeneron a $450 million contract to cover bulk delivery of the cocktail starting as early as late summer, with money added for fill/finish and storage activities.

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UP­DAT­ED: Bio­gen shares spike as ex­ecs com­plete a de­layed pitch for their con­tro­ver­sial Alzheimer's drug — the next move be­longs to the FDA

Biogen is stepping out onto the high wire today, reporting that the team working on the controversial Alzheimer’s drug aducanumab has now completed their submission to the FDA. And they want the agency to bless it with a priority review that would cut the agency’s decision-making time to a mere 6 months.

The news drove a 10% spike in Biogen’s stock $BIIB ahead of the bell.

Part of that spike can be attributed to a relief rally. Biogen execs rattled backers and a host of analysts earlier in the year when they unexpectedly delayed their filing to the third quarter. That delay provoked all manner of speculation after CEO Michel Vounatsos and R&D chief Al Sandrock failed to persuade influential observers that the pandemic and other factors had slowed the timeline for filing. Actually making the pitch at least satisfies skeptics that the FDA was not likely pushing back as Biogen was pushing in. From the start, Biogen execs claimed that they were doing everything in cooperation with the FDA, saying that regulators had signaled their interest in reviewing the submission.

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Atul Deshpande, Harbour BioMed chief strategy officer & head, US operations (Harbour BioMed)

An­oth­er biotech IPO set-up? Multi­na­tion­al biotech leaps from round to round, scoop­ing up cash at a blis­ter­ing pace

A short four months after announcing a $75 million haul in Series B+ fundraising, the multinational biotech Harbour BioMed pulled in another round of investments and eclipsed the nine-digit mark in the process.

Harbour completed its Series C financing, the company announced Thursday morning, raising $102.8 million and bringing its total investment sum to over $300 million since its founding in late 2016. The biotech plans to use the money to transition early-stage candidates from the discovery phase, fund candidates already in the clinic, and prep late-stage candidates for commercialization.

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Mer­ck ex­pands scope of Zymeworks an­ti­body al­liance, adding close to $900M in mile­stones

Nearly a decade after first partnering with Merck, Vancouver-based biotech Zymeworks has expanded its collaboration with the pharma giant once again.

Zymeworks re-upped with Merck in a new licensing agreement, granting the New Jersey pharma giant the right to develop up to 3 additional multispecific antibody candidates. In exchange, the biotech will receive an undisclosed upfront payment — Merck is always loath to discuss cash terms — and nearly $900 million in combined regulatory ($411 million) and commercial ($480 million) milestones.

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Daniel O'Day, Gilead CEO (Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A new study points to $6.5B in pub­lic sup­port build­ing the sci­en­tif­ic foun­da­tion of Gilead­'s remde­sivir. Should that be re­flect­ed in the price?

By drug R&D standards, Gilead’s move to repurpose remdesivir for Covid-19 and grab an emergency use authorization was a remarkably easy, low-cost layup that required modest efficacy and a clean safety profile from just a small group of patients.

The drug OK also arrived after Gilead had paid much of the freight on getting it positioned to move fast.

In a study by Fred Ledley, director of the Center for Integration of Science and Industry at Bentley University in Waltham, MA, researchers concluded that the NIH had invested only $46.5 million in the research devoted to the drug ahead of the pandemic, a small sum compared to the more than $1 billion Gilead expected to spend getting it out this year, all on top of what it had already cost in R&D expenses.

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Ed Engleman (Stanford Blood Center)

Stan­ford star on­col­o­gy sci­en­tist Ed En­gle­man helped cre­ate the im­munother­a­py field. Now he wants to shake up neu­rode­gen­er­a­tion R&D

Over the last generation of drug R&D, Ed Engleman has been a standout scientist.

The Stanford professor co-founded Dendreon and provided the scientific insights needed to develop Provenge into a pioneering — though not particularly marketable — immunotherapy. He’s spurred a slate of startups, assisted by his well-connected perch as a co-founder of Vivo Capital, and took the dendritic cell story into its next chapter at a startup called Bolt.

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Nello Mainolfi (Kymera via YouTube)

Out to re­vive R&D, a resur­gent Sanofi pays $150M cash to part­ner up with a pi­o­neer­ing pro­tein degra­da­tion play­er

Frank Nestle was appointed Sanofi’s global head of immunology and inflammation research therapeutic area just days before dupilumab, the blockbuster-to-be IL-4 antibody, would be accepted for priority review. After four years of consolidating immunology expertise from multiple corners of the Sanofi family and recruiting new talents to build the discovery engine, he’s set eyes on a Phase I-ready program that he believes can grow into a Dupixent-sized franchise.

Covid-19 roundup: CDC de­bat­ing who should get first avail­able vac­cines; EU in Gilead talks af­ter US gob­bled first remde­sivir dos­es

The federal government has now spent billions of dollars accelerating the development of a Covid-19 vaccine, and yet they’ve remained hush-hush on who, precisely, would actually get inoculated once the first doses are approved and available. Internally, though, they have been debating it.

The CDC and an advisory committee of outside health experts have been working since April to devise a ranking system that would determine who receives a vaccine and when, The New York Times reported. The question of who is first in line for inoculation is important because no matter how many doses developers can make or how quickly they can make them, doses will still come out in batches; 300 million inoculations will not appear overnight.

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