Occupied with immunology and cancer, Merck KGaA hands off osteoarthritis drug to Novartis for €50M cash
By the time Merck KGaA published promising Phase II data for sprifermin — once tapped as a big prospect for the ailing R&D group — late last year, the German drugmaker made clear it was looking for a partner to take over its whole osteoarthritis pipeline. While sprifermin is still sitting in the portfolio, it’s managed to find a buyer for another drug.
Novartis is paying €50 million upfront to license M6495, a Phase II-ready compound that targets an enzyme known as ADAMTS5, with promises of €400 million in milestones.
The deal comes more than three years after Merck KGaA grabbed the Nanobody from Ablynx — since acquired by Sanofi — with a €15 million payment to reward the preclinical proof-of-concept package. Then known as ALX-1141, the candidate was one of two to emerge from a collaboration dating back to 2011 to tackle osteoarthritis.
Since then Luciano Rossetti’s team has completed two Phase I studies for M6495, one in healthy volunteers and another in OA patients. With signs that the drug could cut down ARGS (a neoepitope from cleaved aggrecan, found in the synovial fluid and serum of OA patients) levels, the drug had potential in many different types of OA, he said.
The ultimate goal, of course, is to show it can protect against cartilage damage and reduce joint pain. But it’s now Novartis’ job to devise the trials needed to prove it.
“With this deal we have found the right solution for this asset designed to present an innovative mechanism of action for the potential treatment of osteoarthritis, as we prioritize our pipeline to deliver the greatest impact for patients across our internal areas of expertise,” Rossetti, head of global biopharma R&D, said in a statement.
Under Belén Garijo, who’s stepping up as Merck KGaA’s CEO, the priorities will likely revolve heavily around oncology, immunology and the intersection of the two.
For Novartis, OA falls under its focus on immunology, hepatology and dermatology. Its website lists two early-stage programs dedicated to the disease, one being an ANGPTL3 agonist designed to help regenerate cartilage. The Phase I study was completed in 2018 and a second trial is slate to wrap in 2022.