Dragonfly Therapeutics in $695M cancer R&D pact with Merck

More than a year after insect-inspired biotech Dragonfly Therapeutics penned a blood cancer pact with big biotech Celgene, it's back at the deal table with a potentially meaty biobucks deal with Merck and a focus on solid tumors.

Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Dragonfly has signed an R&D collaboration the U.S. Big Pharma across a series of solid tumor targets using its so-called TriNKET platform, which generates bridges designed to bind to proteins found on the surface of tumor cells and natural killer (NK) cells. The aim is to stimulate NK cells.

Once activated and aware of the presence of the cancer cells, NK cells attack tumors directly while also enlisting the support of T and B cells. T cells, the cornerstone of current immuno-oncology approaches, then join the direct attack on the tumor, while B cells produce antibodies to help the fight against the cancer.

Exact details on specific targets and deal length were not divulged, but the pact could be worth just shy of $700 million in biobucks and upfront payments, though any upfront was not made public.

Its summer 2017 deal with Celgene was worth $33 million upfront, with biobucks also in the offing, gaining Celgene an exclusive option to license up to four assets designed to treat acute myeloid leukemia, multiple myeloma and other hematological cancers.

For Merck, it gets exclusive options to license a number of Dragonfly’s candidate NK cell engager immunotherapies in certain solid cancers. It’s an early-stage bet, but one Merck will hope to gain from down the line.

Merck is also, of course, no stranger to immuno-oncology approaches given its major ongoing success with PD-1 inhibitor Keytruda, and it’s likely thinking longer term for what can replace this in the future with today’s relatively low-cost deal.  

“Merck is a world leader in solid-tumor cancer therapies and has a demonstrated history of delivering breakthrough treatment options for patients,” said Bill Haney, co-founder and CEO of Dragonfly.

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“We’re excited to work with Merck to accelerate bringing drug candidates developed using our innovative TriNKET technology platform to patients with a number of solid tumor malignancies."

“Dragonfly’s technology platform offers an opportunity to harness the power of NK cell receptor engagement to develop novel therapeutics targeting solid tumor indications,” said Joe Miletich, SVP of discovery and preclinical development, Merck Research Laboratories. “We look forward to working with the Dragonfly team.”