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

Health­care Dis­par­i­ties and Sick­le Cell Dis­ease

In the complicated U.S. healthcare system, navigating a serious illness such as cancer or heart disease can be remarkably challenging for patients and caregivers. When that illness is classified as a rare disease, those challenges can become even more acute. And when that rare disease occurs in a population that experiences health disparities, such as people with sickle cell disease (SCD) who are primarily Black and Latino, challenges can become almost insurmountable.

The End­points 11: They've got mad mon­ey and huge am­bi­tions. It's time to go big or go home

These days, selecting a group of private biotechs for the Endpoints 11 spotlight begins with a sprint to get ahead of IPOs and the M&A teams at Big Pharma. I’ve had a couple of faceplants earlier this year, watching some of the biotechs on my short list choose a quick leap onto Nasdaq or into the arms of a buyer.

Vividion, you would have been a great pick for the Endpoints 11. I’m sorry I missed you.

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Dave Lennon, former president of Novartis Gene Therapies

So what hap­pened with No­var­tis Gene Ther­a­pies? Here's your an­swer

Over the last couple of days it’s become clear that the gene therapy division at Novartis has quietly undergone a major reorganization. We learned on Monday that Dave Lennon, who had pursued a high-profile role as president of the unit with 1,500 people, had left the pharma giant to take over as CEO of a startup.

Like a lot of the majors, Novartis is an open highway for head hunters, or anyone looking to staff a startup. So that was news but not completely unexpected.

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Jacob Van Naarden (Eli Lilly)

Ex­clu­sives: Eli Lil­ly out to crash the megablock­buster PD-(L)1 par­ty with 'dis­rup­tive' pric­ing; re­veals can­cer biotech buy­out

It’s taken 7 years, but Eli Lilly is promising to finally start hammering the small and affluent PD-(L)1 club with a “disruptive” pricing strategy for their checkpoint therapy allied with China’s Innovent.

Lilly in-licensed global rights to sintilimab a year ago, building on the China alliance they have with Innovent. That cost the pharma giant $200 million in cash upfront, which they plan to capitalize on now with a long-awaited plan to bust up the high-price market in lung cancer and other cancers that have created a market worth tens of billions of dollars.

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Who are the women su­per­charg­ing bio­phar­ma R&D? Nom­i­nate them for this year's spe­cial re­port

The biotech industry has faced repeated calls to diversify its workforce — and in the last year, those calls got a lot louder. Though women account for just under half of all biotech employees around the world, they occupy very few places in C-suites, and even fewer make it to the helm.

Some companies are listening, according to a recent BIO survey which showed that this year’s companies were 2.5 times more likely to have a diversity and inclusion program compared to last year’s sample. But we still have a long way to go. Women represent just 31% of biotech executives, BIO reported. And those numbers are even more stark for women of color.

FDA+ roundup: Bs­U­FA III ready for show­time, court tells FDA to re-work com­pound­ing plan, new guid­ance up­dates and more

The FDA has now spelled out what exactly will be included in the third iteration of Biosimilar User Fee Act (BsUFA) from 2023 through 2027, which similarly to the prescription drug deal, sets fees that industry has to pay for submitting applications, in exchange for firm timelines that the agency must meet.

This latest deal includes several sweeteners for the biosimilar industry, which has yet to make great strides in the US market, with shorter review timelines for safety labeling updates and updates to add or remove an indication that does not contain efficacy data.

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Joshua Liang, Clover Biopharmaceuticals CEO

With world still in sore need of dos­es, Clover says its Covid-19 vac­cine is 67% ef­fec­tive in Phase III

With concerns about the Delta variant rising and much of the world still in desperate need of vaccine doses, a Chinese biotech announced Wednesday that a new shot has shown positive results in a large trial against Covid-19, including new variants.

Clover Biopharmaceuticals announced Wednesday that its vaccine candidate showed 79% efficacy against the Delta variant in a Phase II/III trial dubbed Spectra, and 67% effective against Covid-19 overall.

Jean Bennett (Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP Images)

Lux­tur­na in­ven­tor Jean Ben­nett starts a new gene ther­a­py com­pa­ny to tack­le rare dis­eases left be­hind by phar­ma, VCs

A few years ago Jean Bennett found herself in a surprising place for a woman who invented the first gene therapy ever approved in the United States: No one, it seemed, wanted her work.

Bennett, who designed and co-developed Luxturna, approved in 2018 for a rare form of blindness, had kept building new gene therapies for eye diseases at her University of Pennsylvania lab. But although the results in animals looked promising, pharma companies and investors kept turning down the pedigreed ophthalmology professor.

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Maureen Hillenmeyer, Hexagon Bio CEO

Hexa­gon Bio rais­es $61M to con­tin­ue ef­forts to turn fun­gi in­to drugs

A year after raising a $47 million launch round, the fungi-loving drug hunters at Hexagon Bio have more than doubled their coffers.

Hexagon announced today that it raised another $61 million for its efforts to design cancer and infectious disease drugs based on insights mined from the DNA in millions of species of fungi. The new financing brings Hexagon’s committed funding to over $108 million.