KRAS craze sees Merck put $2.5B biobucks down for Taiho, Astex licensing deal

KRAS and its hope against cancer was one of the biggest talking points in 2019, and it seems this hype is not dying down in 2020.

This morning, Merck & Co. said it was willing to put as much as $2.5 billion on the table (though very heavily backloaded) to gain access to small-molecule inhibitors against several drug targets, including the KRAS oncogene, from Taiho and Astex.

While a major biobucks number, the upfront is decidedly smaller: just $50 million between the two biotechs, but not surprising given that the deal focuses on currently preclinical assets.

The deal breaks down like this: Taiho, Astex and Merck will combine preclinical candidates and their data “with knowledge and expertise from their respective research programs,” according to a statement from the trio.

In exchange for giving Merck an exclusive global license to their small-molecule inhibitor candidates, Taiho and Astex get that $50 million upfront, with the $2.5 billion “contingent upon the achievement of preclinical, clinical, regulatory and sales milestones for multiple products arising from the agreement, as well as tiered royalties on sales.”

RELATED: Mirati clears first clinical hurdle in KRAS race against Amgen

Merck will also funnel cash into the R&D side and will be responsible for selling any approved drugs out of the collab. Taiho, meanwhile, has co-commercialization rights in Japan and an option to promote in specific areas of Southeast Asia.

“Taiho has used its unique and proprietary drug discovery platform to generate a number of small molecule inhibitors,” said Teruhiro Utsugi, Ph.D., managing director at Taiho. “This alliance builds on our KRAS research up to now, and together with MSD it allows us to combine expertise to significantly accelerate the global research, development and commercialization of a number of our mutant KRAS programs by accessing external talent and resources.”

“At MSD we continue to pursue new regimens designed to extend the benefits of highly selective therapies to more patients with cancer,” said Roger Perlmutter, M.D., Ph.D., president of MSD Research Laboratories.

“This agreement with Taiho and Astex combines our respective small molecule assets and industry-leading expertise in cancer cell signaling to enable development of the most promising drug candidates.”

Harren Jhoti, Ph.D., president and CEO of Astex Pharmaceuticals (U.K.), added: “Together with our Taiho colleagues we are delighted to be working with MSD, one of the global leaders in oncology drug development, on this strategic alliance. This collaboration is another testament to Astex’s position as the leader in fragment-based drug discovery.”

KRAS is among the most frequently mutated oncogenes in human cancers and is believed to be present in around 90% of pancreatic cancers and 20% of non-small cell lung cancers, two of the toughest cancer targets out there.

Amgen, Boehringer Ingelheim, Eli Lilly and Mirati stoked the fires of KRAS last year with data and trial starts hyping up this target; Amgen’s KRAS inhibitor became the first drug of its class to post clinical data last summer, showing it could stop tumor growth or shrinking tumors in 90% of lung cancer patients.

The Big Biotech later unveiled more data for the highest dose of the drug, showing it kept cancer at bay in 100% of lung cancer patients and shrank tumors in more than half of them. A few months later, Mirati also posted encouraging data out of its early work.