Moderna takes on a low-risk pact with CAR-T player Autolus for mRNA-based cancer drugs
Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine has transformed the once-backwater biotech into one of the most highly valued drugmakers in the world in the span of a year. But what does the future hold for Moderna’s star turn? A small-scale discovery pact could offer a clue.
Moderna will hold exclusive rights to four mRNA-based immuno-oncology candidates using proprietary binding tech from Autolus, a biotech best known for its work on “off-the-shelf” CAR-T therapies, the partners said Monday.
Unlike some other discovery pacts involving big-name drugmakers, the deal doesn’t come with upfront cash straight away. Autolus will be due an upfront payment for each candidate if Moderna chooses to opt-in with downstream regulatory and commercial milestones and royalty rights.
Despite the scanty details, shares of $AUTL were trading up about 17% before the bell.
It’s a low risk endeavor for Moderna, which under the watchful eye of CEO Stéphane Bancel has seen its market cap explode to nearly $142 billion amid the rise of its Covid-19 vaccine and its platform potential in other indications.
The pact, while meager, could also offer some insight into how Moderna is thinking about its next steps, looking for outside partners to help develop better ways to traffic mRNA-based therapeutics into tumor cells.
The linchpin of the deal is the binders that Autolus has touted as a key technology. Although it didn’t disclose the binders it’ll explore with Moderna, the company uses a CAT binder in its CAR-T candidates, a synthetic antibody the biotech believes has a shorter half-life than the standard FMC63 binder used in other therapies, potentially limiting the serious side effects associated with the class. In a note to clients, Mizuho analysts called the deal a “broad validation” of Autolus’ platform if, ultimately, a heavily qualified one.
But the tie-up will likely come as cold solace for market watchers waiting for if, or when, Moderna will use its growing cash position to start inking research deals or potentially add a smaller biotech to the fold outright. Driven by growing sales for its Covid-19 vaccine and the validation of its mRNA vaccine platform writ large, Moderna has seen its market cap skyrocket in recent days — now surpassing no less a light than old stalwart Amgen — with no end in sight to the growth.
How Moderna will capitalize on that success to set itself up in the future is still yet to be seen.