Cytokines claimed spotlight due to COVID-19. Now, Merck will work with Synthekine to understand their role in autoimmune disorders

The world got a little more steeped in cytokine knowledge because of the small protein's role in COVID-19, and, now, Merck will study how cytokines work in autoimmune diseases through a $525 million biobucks deal with Synthekine. 

While its COVID-19 pill snags the limelight, Merck is partnering with the preclinical California biotech on the small proteins that enable immune cells to talk to each other. Cytokines have come to the forefront during the pandemic because of so-called "cytokine storms" that develop in patients with COVID-19, but the pharma's research collaboration with Synthekine is more focused on an undisclosed autoimmune disease.

Synthekine, fresh off $108 million in funding, will lead early research, initial protein engineering, biology work and preclinical efforts. Then the biotech will hand off the cytokine target to Merck for clinical development and commercialization, said Synthekine CEO Debanjan Ray in an interview with Fierce Biotech. 

The deal involves one already designated cytokine target. Merck will make an undisclosed upfront payment, contribute research funding and potentially dole out up to $525 million in milestones, the companies said Monday. 

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But that's not all. Merck can also select a second cytokine target, which hasn't yet been designated. The pharma still has "some time to do that," Ray said. The second target comes with the potential for another $525 million in biobucks. 

This is Synthekine's first collaborator. The company received clinical trial clearance for its lead candidate last week, Ray said. The drug, STK-012, is a partial interleukin-2 agonist that will be studied in a phase 1a/1b clinical trial alone and in combination with an immune checkpoint inhibitor in people with advanced solid tumors, the biotech said.