Germany’s Merck is signing up to a small upfront but potentially huge biobucks pact with U.K.-U.S. biotech Artios Pharma.
The upfront is just $30 million, but Merck is also putting on the table double-digit option fees and up to $860 million in total milestones per target, which could stretch to eight targets in total.
Everything would have to go perfectly to hit the billions of dollars the total could swell to, which almost never happens, but it’s still a nice boost of confidence for the DNA damage response (DDR) specialist, which in 2018 got off a meaty £65 million ($84 million) series B with backing from the likes of Pfizer and Novartis.
Artios works on so-called precision oncology drugs, and, under the three-year pact, the pair will tap its nuclease targeting discovery platform to seek out multiple synthetic lethal targets. The deal does not include Artios’s lead programs, Polθ and ATR inhibitors, for which Artios holds on to all rights.
The company’s programs in DDR, in-licensed from Cancer Research UK and Masaryk University, are looking to create next-generation DDR therapies that could be PARP 2.0, building on the success of AstraZeneca and Merck & Co.’s Lynparza as well as GlaxoSmithKline’s Zejula.
“Our platform has the potential to revolutionize targeted treatment in cancer and deliver on the promise of precision medicine,” said Niall Martin, CEO at Artios.
“This collaboration will leverage the potential of our unique discovery platform of novel DNA repair nuclease inhibitors and targets that we have been developing. The partnership puts us in an exceptional position to focus internal efforts on our leading portfolio of assets which includes a small-molecule ATR inhibitor and a Polθ programme, both in candidate IND evaluation.”
The deal also builds on Merck’s own DDR work, with several DNA-PK inhibitors in phases 1 and 2. The German pharma is looking to the future and to build on the work of its checkpoint inhibitor Bavencio, partnered with Pfizer, which has failed to match its major U.S. rival Merck & Co. with its Keytruda.