Chasing Moderna, Merck pays $50M to join race to develop cancer-preventing vaccine

Merck & Co. has joined the emerging race to develop an Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) vaccine, paying ModeX Therapeutics $50 million upfront and dangling $872.5 million in biobucks for global rights to a preclinical challenger to shots in clinical development at Moderna and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

EBV infects most people at some point in their lives. Many people have no symptoms, but the virus can cause infectious mononucleosis, a condition associated with fatigue and fever as well as linked to a range of other diseases. Carried as an asymptomatic infection, the virus is associated with 200,000 cancer cases a year, and a paper published last year showed it greatly increases the risk of multiple sclerosis. 

Merck, which pioneered the idea of vaccinating to prevent cancer with HPV shot Gardasil, sees the evidence as an opportunity—and has identified ModeX as the company to help it realize that opportunity. The deal with ModeX gives Merck an exclusive worldwide license to the preclinical vaccine candidate MDX-2201.

ModeX developed MDX-2201 using a modular nanoparticle vaccine platform. The approach has resulted in a vaccine that presents antigens from four viral proteins—gH, gL, gp42 and gp350—involved in viral entry into host cells. By targeting four proteins, the vaccine could inhibit the infection of both B cells and epithelial cells. 

The vaccine is differentiated from other candidates. Moderna’s mRNA-1189 uses lipid nanoparticles to get mRNA encoding for four viral proteins—gp42, gp220, gH and gL—into human cells. Other candidates, including the NIH’s clinical-phase prospect, target gp350, the most abundant glycoprotein on the EBV envelope, although this approach has so far failed to yield an effective vaccine. 

Merck sees potential in ModeX’s broader approach and will work with the biotech to get the prospect ready for the clinic. Tarit Mukhopadhyay, Ph.D., vice president of infectious diseases and vaccine discovery at Merck Research Laboratories, highlighted the company’s experience with Gardasil in a statement to disclose the deal.

“We have a proud legacy of developing vaccines including several that have the potential to help protect against certain types of cancer. We look forward to working with the ModeX Therapeutics team to apply our experience and expertise to evaluate the potential of MDX-2201 to help protect against EBV infection and other, potentially related, conditions,” Mukhopadhyay said.

The deal is a win for Opko Health, which bought ModeX for $300 million in stock last year. In addition to MDX-2201, the takeover gave Opko control of a tetra-specific antibody for treating solid tumors that is on course to enter the clinic next year.