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Merck pays Vertex $230m upfront for cancer programmes

Licences four DNA damage and repair programmes with first-in-class or best-in-class potential
Merck KGaA

Merck KGaA has licensed four DNA damage and repair programmes from Vertex Pharma that it says will complement its push into cancer immunotherapy.

The German pharma company is paying $230m upfront for rights to two clinical-stage programmes and two more in preclinical development and says they all have "first-in-class and best-in-class potential".

Merck's chief executive Belen Garijo said combining DNA damage and repair with immuno-oncology agents such as its Pfizer-partnered checkpoint inhibitor avelumab has "promising therapeutic synergy". It is widely believed that combining immuno-oncology agents with other therapies will unlock additional efficacy gains.

The first clinical programme includes two candidates targeting an enzyme known as ataxia telangiectasia and Rad3 related (ATR) - also known as FRP1 - that is involved in sensing DNA damage and delaying cell cycling in order to allow time for repair. Inhibiting the enzyme can kill cancer cells directly as well as sensitise them to other anticancer drugs.

The two compounds, VX-970 and oral candidate VX-803, have reached phase II and phase I clinical development, respectively, in a variety of tumour types. Last year, Vertex reported phase I data on VX-970 showing that injections of the drug could achieve partial responses in patients with solid tumours that were resistant to platinum-based chemotherapy.

Meanwhile, Merck has also negotiated rights to a DNA-dependent protein kinase (DNA-PK) inhibitor programme headed by VX-984, which is in phase I testing. Like ATR, DNA-PK is a key component of the DNA repair machinery and Merck already has its own inhibitors in development.

The ongoing trial is testing VX-984 alone and with liposomal doxorubicin in patients with advanced solid tumours.

Merck is giving less information out on the preclinical programmes, but said they include "one immuno-oncology programme against an attractive target with first-in-class potential, and a programme against a completely novel target".

Merck is taking over full responsibility for the development and commercialization of all the in-licensed candidates.

For Vertex, the deal provides a cash injection while allowing it to concentrate on core projects such as cystic fibrosis and therapies for other rare diseases, according to analysts at Jefferies.

Article by
Phil Taylor

13th January 2017

From: Sales

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