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

Tar­get­ing a Po­ten­tial Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of Cer­tain Can­cers with DNA Dam­age Re­sponse

Every individual’s DNA is unique, and because of this, every patient responds differently to disease and treatment. It is astonishing how four tiny building blocks of our DNA – A, T, C, G – dictate our health, disease, and how we age.

The tricky thing about DNA is that it is constantly exposed to damage by sources such as ultraviolet light, certain chemicals, toxins, and even natural biochemical processes inside our cells.¹ If ignored, DNA damage will accumulate in replicating cells, giving rise to mutations that can lead to premature aging, cancer, and other diseases.

Fol­low biotechs go­ing pub­lic with the End­points News IPO Track­er

The Endpoints News team is continuing to track IPO filings for 2021, and we’ve designed a new tracker page for the effort.

Check it out here: Biopharma IPOs 2021 from Endpoints News

You’ll be able to find all the biotechs that have filed and priced so far this year, sortable by quarter and listed by newest first. As of the time of publishing on Feb. 25, there have already been 16 biotechs debuting on Nasdaq so far this year, with an additional four having filed their S-1 paperwork.

S&P ex­pects steady ero­sion in Big Phar­ma's cred­it pro­file in 2021 as new M&A deals roll in — but don't un­der­es­ti­mate their un­der­ly­ing strength

S&P Global has taken a look at the dominant forces shaping the pharma market and come to the conclusion that there will be more downgrades than upgrades in 2021 — the 8th straight year of steady decline.

But it’s not all bad news. Some things are looking up, and there’s still plenty of money to be made in an industry that enjoys a 30% to 40% profit margin, once you factor in steep R&D expenses.

Tal Zaks, Moderna CMO (AP Photo/Rodrique Ngowi, via still image from video)

CMO Tal Zaks bids Mod­er­na a sur­prise adieu as biotech projects $18.4B in rev­enue, plots post-Covid ex­pan­sion

How do you exit a company after six years in style? Developing one of the most lucrative and life-saving products in pharma history is probably not the worst way to go.

Tal Zaks, Moderna’s CMO since 2015, will leave the mRNA biotech in September, the biotech disclosed in their annual report this morning. The company has already retained the recruitment firm Russell Reynolds to find a replacement.

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Steve Cutler, Icon CEO (Icon)

In the biggest CRO takeover in years, Icon doles out $12B for PRA Health Sci­ences to fo­cus on de­cen­tral­ized clin­i­cal work

Contract research M&A had a healthy run in recent years before recently petering out. But with the market ripe for a big buyout and the Covid-19 pandemic emphasizing the importance of decentralized trials, Wednesday saw a tectonic shift in the CRO world.

Icon, the Dublin-based CRO, will acquire PRA Health Sciences for $12 billion in a move that will shake up the highest rungs of a fragmented market. The merger would combine the 5th- and 6th-largest CROs by 2020 revenue, according to Icon, and the merger will set the newco up to be the second-largest global CRO behind only IQVIA.

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Tom Barnes (Orna)

The mR­NA era is here. MPM be­lieves the fu­ture be­longs to oR­NA — and Big Phar­ma wants a seat at the ta­ble

If the ultra-fast clinical development of Covid-19 vaccines opened the world’s eyes to the promises of messenger RNA, the subsequent delays in supply offered a crash course on the ultra-complex process of producing them. Even before the formulation and fill-finish steps, mRNA is the precious end product from an arduous journey involving enzyme-aided transcription, modification and purification.

For Bristol Myers Squibb, Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, Gilead’s Kite and Astellas, it’s time to rethink the way therapeutic RNA is engineered.

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Ken Frazier, Merck CEO (Bess Adler/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

UP­DAT­ED: Mer­ck takes a swing at the IL-2 puz­zle­box with a $1.85B play for buzzy Pan­dion and its au­toim­mune hope­fuls

When Roger Perlmutter bid farewell to Merck late last year, the drugmaker perhaps best known now for sales giant Keytruda signaled its intent to take a swing at early-stage novelty with the appointment of discovery head Dean Li. Now, Merck is signing a decent-sized check to bring an IL-2 moonshot into the fold.

Merck will shell out roughly $1.85 billion for Pandion Pharmaceuticals, a biotech hoping to gin up regulatory T cells (Tregs) to treat a range of autoimmune disorders, the drugmaker said Thursday.

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Glax­o­SmithK­line re­thinks strat­e­gy for Covid-19 an­ti­body — not the Vir ones — af­ter tri­al flop. Is there hope in high-risk pa­tients?

In the search for a better Covid-19 therapeutic, GlaxoSmithKline and Vir have partnered up on two antibodies they hope have a chance. GSK is also testing its own in-house antibody, and early results may have shut the door on its widespread use.

A combination of GSK’s monoclonal antibody otilimab plus standard of care couldn’t best standard of care alone in preventing death and respiratory failure in hospitalized Covid-19 patients after 28 days, according to data from the Phase IIa OSCAR study unveiled Thursday.

Mod­er­na's Stéphane Ban­cel plans to dou­ble down on vac­cine pro­duc­tion, new vari­ants as mR­NA rules in pan­dem­ic fight

Stéphane Bancel thought he’d be sleeping more by now.

The 48-year-old Moderna CEO figured that by 2021 he’d have his vaccine through the clinic, authorized, and in mass production — that the hard part would be over. Instead, he’s still working Saturdays and Sundays, talking with his lab and manufacturing teams and fielding calls with two to three world leaders a day to answer their concerns about supply and emerging new variants.

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