San Diego biotech Janux Therapeutics has penned a major biobucks R&D pact focused on next generation T-cell engager immunotherapies in cancer.
Merck will tap Janux’s so-called Tumor Activated T Cell Engager (TRACTr) tech to engineer new, T-cell engager drug candidates against two cancer targets selected by Merck.
Merck gets exclusive worldwide license to products and intellectual property from the collab, and, in return, Janux could get as much as $500.5 million per target in upfront and milestone payments, plus royalties on sales of any products derived from the collaboration.
Merck said in a statement that it will fund the research.
This comes in a year that has seen a flurry of deals from the usually pact-shy Merck, which include COVID-19 work as well as cancer, such as its Dragonfly Therapeutics pact for its TriNKET immunotherapy candidate and its $2.8 billion deal to snap up VelosBio and snag its anti-ROR1 ADC.
Merck wants to make broader bets in cancer, hoping to once again strike gold as it did with checkpoint inhibitor Keytruda, which has become one of the biggest-selling medicines ever made.
T-cell engagers are an emerging class of immunotherapies that bind to a tumor cell and recruit a patient’s T cells to eradicate tumor cells. There have been attempts at this in the past, but safety concerns have curtailed some of the research.
Janux believes, and Merck must now, too, that its tech can overcome these issues “by integrating tumor-specific activation with crossover pharmacokinetics to produce best-in-class T cell engager therapeutics.”
In early preclinical work, its candidates have shown “comparable anti-tumor efficacy relative to standard T cell engagers but lack the associated liabilities related to cytokine release, healthy tissue toxicities, or systemic immune activation.” The proof, however, will need to be shown in clinical trials.
“At Janux, we have developed a technology to engineer best-in-class T cell engagers that are potent and highly tumor specific, which is essential for an immune response that kills tumor cells but spares healthy tissue,” said David Campbell, Ph.D., president and CEO of Janux.
“Partnering with Merck, a world leader in immuno-oncology, provides us with important expertise and resources in developing next generation T cell engager therapies that will make immunotherapy work for more cancer patients.”
Currently, Janux says it is focusing on colorectal, gastroesophageal, prostrate, non-small cell lung, triple negative breast and ovarian cancers.