Merck cuts $1bn deal with Janux for cancer T-cell therapies

In a deal that could top $1 billion, Merck & Co has teamed up with US biotech Janux Therapeutics to bring T-cell immunotherapies to cancer patients.

The agreement sees San Diego-based Janux in line for around $500 million in milestones apiece for two T-cell engager therapies – which bind to a tumour cell and recruit a patient’s T cells to eradicate tumour cells – that will be developed using Janux’ TRACTr platform.

Each programme includes undisclosed upfront and milestone payments plus royalties on sales, with Merck indicating in a statement that it will be funding the research.

It’s the first major partnership for Janux, which was set up in 2017, and could be the last to be organised by Merck’s R&D head Roger Perlmutter who is retiring from the big pharma company at the end of the year.

Perlmutter has directed Merck to bolster its pipeline with a series of deals in the last few months of his tenure, as investors have started to ask whether the company has become a bit too reliant on checkpoint inhibitor Keytruda (pembrolizumab), which accounts for around a third of its sales.

Just a few weeks ago, Merck (known as MSD outside North America) paid $425 million to get hold of OncoImmune. The headline of the deal was an experimental COVID-19 drug, but it also claimed rights to a pipeline of early-stage oncology drugs.

Other recent deals include a $2.8 billion acquisition of VelosBio and its anti-ROR1 antibody-drug conjugate (ADC) VLS-101, as well as a partnership with Dragonfly Therapeutics for a cancer programme based on the biotech’s TriNKET natural killer (NK) cell engager platform.

Earlier in the year there was also $2.55 billion alliance with Taiho and Astex for cancer antibodies, including a KRAS drug, and a $4.2 billion deal with Seattle Genetics covering ADCs for  breast cancer and other solid tumours.

The deal-making activity signals Merck’s determination to stay at the forefront of cancer immunotherapy with new medicines that could complement Keytruda and broaden its portfolio.

Janux says its platform could allow it to succeed where other T-cell engager developers have failed due to “dose-limiting toxicities, poor pharmacokinetic profiles, and attenuated efficacy,”

In preclinical testing, its TRACTr drugs have been shown to offer the same anti-tumour activity as older T-cell engager drugs, but don’t cause the release of cytokines that can lead to a runaway immune response and damage to healthy tissues.

Those problems mean that so far only one T-cell engager has reached the market – Amgen’s Blincyto (blinatumomab) for leukaemia – although many others are coming through development.

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