Vienna-based vaccine developer Themis signs pact with Merck for 'blockbuster indication'
Months after securing up to $21 million in funding from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) for its Chikungunya vaccine — which is being prepped for a late-stage trial — Vienna, Austria-based Themis Bioscience entered into a pact with US drugmaker Merck.
The European vaccine developer formed in 2009 and a year later joined forces with the Institut Pasteur — gaining exclusive access to a measles virus vaccine vector technology, which now forms the backbone of its platform.
Considering it has been used to vaccinate billions of people, the attenuated measles virus is one of the most effective and safe vaccines available, making it an attractive candidate vector to avert infectious disease.
In contrast to other approaches, Themis has developed the technology to incorporate multiple large recombinant protein antigens into the vector, which then acts as a delivery vehicle to transport the antigen payload directly to macrophages and dendritic cells. Further, since the vector itself replicates — thereby expressing antigens even after immunization — Themis’ vaccine candidates are engineered to confer long-term immunity, chief Erich Tauber told Endpoints News.
Apart from its lead experimental Chikungunya vaccine, Themis has a Zika vaccine and Lassa fever in early-stage development. It also has a range of preclinical programs, including those for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), cytomegalovirus (CMV), norovirus and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
The vector also has the intrinsic ability to attack cancer cells, which has been demonstrated in various preclinical studies, he added. The company is therefore capitalizing on that potential by equipping the vector with additional tumor-killing payloads to develop oncology treatments. Themis’s first immuno-oncology vaccine is set to enter the clinic this year.
The terms of the Merck $MRK partnership are shrouded in mystery. The two will work on a “blockbuster indication” and the New Jersey-based drug manufacturer will grant up to $200 million in milestone payments, in addition to royalties. Merck has also made an undisclosed equity investment in Themis.
Merck, which has been basking in the success of its flagship checkpoint inhibitor Keytruda, causing some to worry it may be leaning too heavily on the blockbuster, has sharpened its focus on its vaccine portfolio. In May, its pneumococcal conjugate vaccine candidate aimed at toppling Pfizer’s bestseller, Prevnar 13, cleared a mid-stage study — and is also being evaluated in various Phase III trials. Merck also has a partnership with mRNA company Moderna $MRNA, focused on personalized cancer vaccines that are customized for each patient.