Merck KGaA licenses four cancer programmes from Vertex for $230 million upfront

Merck KGaA on Wednesday announced a licensing agreement with Vertex Pharmaceuticals for four investigational cancer therapies, including two that inhibit DNA repair pathways. Under the deal, Merck will receive global licences to develop and commercialise the drugs for an upfront payment of $230 million, in addition to royalties on future net revenue. Belén Garijo, CEO of Merck's healthcare division, remarked "with this strategic deal, we significantly strengthen our oncology pipeline in two attractive areas where we have leading competence, DNA damage and repair and immuno-oncology - areas which also have promising therapeutic synergy." 

Specifically, the agreement include two clinical-stage programmes, such as an ATR programme consisting of the experimental compounds VX-970 and VX-803. VX-970 is currently being investigated in 10 Phase I and Phase II studies across a variety of tumour types for patients deemed to be responsive to ATR inhibition based on biomarker data, while VX-803, an oral ATR inhibitor, is currently in early-stage development as monotherapy and in combination with chemotherapy. The second programme comprises the experimental DNA-dependant protein kinase inhibitor VX-984, which is under investigation both alone and in combination with pegylated liposomal doxorubicin for patients with advanced solid tumours.

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Meanwhile, the pre-clinical programmes include an immuno-oncology programme against a target with possible first-in-class potential and a programme against a novel target. Merck noted that the therapies have demonstrated efficacy in pre-clinical models, while it plans to continue characterisation of the drugs to proceed to clinical development. 

"It's a very strong strategic fit for us," stated Merck global R&D chief Luciano Rossetti, adding "to succeed in oncology, our company is focusing our efforts in specific areas we can drive, such as immuno-oncology and DNA damage and repair. These assets from Vertex perfectly complement our oncology efforts." 

Commenting on the news, Jefferies analysts indicated that Vertex could use the proceeds from the agreement to invest in core areas such as cystic fibrosis. The analysts added that Vertex could elect to market the therapies themselves if they display promise. 

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