Collaborations, Immuno-oncology

PD-L1 checkpoint player Merck KGaA dives into next-gen work with F-star collaboration

John Haurum

CHICAGO — Not all the biotech news on cancer drugs this past weekend is directly related to the big ASCO confab in Chicago. Cambridge, UK-based F-star parachuted in news of its latest tie-up, this one a buy-in from Merck KGaA, which picked up rights to a lead bispecific checkpoint drug.

Merck KGaA and its Big Pharma partner Pfizer recently hit the market with one of the first 5 checkpoints, the PD-L1 drug Bavencio (avelumab). Now it’s looking past that initial market entry into the next-gen therapies making their way into the clinic. And it picked up an option on a preclinical LAG-3, PD-L1 bispecific at F-star called FS118. In addition, Merck KGaA gets an option on 4 other preclinical therapies — all unspecified i/o drugs.

F-Star set up its fourth asset vehicle in structuring the deal, dubbed F-star Delta. Merck KGaA will pay €115 million in the first couple of years, a sum broken up for an unspecified upfront, R&D payments as well as a pair of early milestones for the first two years. Then German Merck will have the opportunity to decide if it wants to exercise its buyout option, biting off a second stage that brings the total to a potential $1 billion-plus, says F-star CEO John Haurum.

Haurum tells me the hypothesis that his team is pursuing is that “there will be benefits in the bispecific that go beyond the straight combination” of two drugs directed at each checkpoint target. LAG-3 is one of a group of checkpoint targets that has attracted widespread interest among the biopharma companies going deeper into the field.

Haurum notes that there’s lot of work to be done yet, but the bispecific has the potential to deliver more drug into the tumor tissue, offering a better safety profile. There could also be advantages in bridging between T cells and the targeted tumor antigen.

F-star has three other asset subsidiaries it’s working on, including Gamma partnered with the Bay Area biotech Denali. Beta is another i/o deal with AbbVie while Bristol-Myers Squibb kicked loose its HER-2 program Alpha a few weeks ago. The one-time partners kept the specific reasons for the breakup under wraps, but Haurum noted that the HER-2 field is a crowded one.

F-star has 85 staffers these days, a significant workforce in these circles. And Haurum says they’re also working on proprietary therapies as they continue to ramp up new partnerships.

Merck KGaA recently sold off its biosimilars portfolio, looking to follow up on its success in oncology.

“Our collaboration with Fstar will help us to rapidly enhance our pipeline and grow our portfolio of bispecific immunotherapies,” noted Merck KGaA R&D chief Luciano Rossetti in a prepared statement.

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
Director of Operations
Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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