Merck bets up to $1B on Pearl's 'smart' biomaterial jewels as biotech begins to raise fresh funds

Merck & Co. has signed up to Pearl Bio’s synthetic biology platform, offering up to $1 billion in biobucks for potentially cancer-busting biologics.

The collaboration could pile more biologics onto Merck’s pipeline and serves as validation for Pearl, which emerged from stealth in June 2023 with the backing of Khosla Ventures. Merck is paying an undisclosed upfront fee and offering up to $1 billion in milestone payments for Pearl to identify biologics to treat cancer. 

The biotech describes itself as creating “template-directed biomaterials with tunable properties.” Co-founder, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Business Officer Amy Cayne Schwartz elaborated in an email to Fierce Biotech, describing how the platform can “encode synthetic chemistries to tune therapeutic properties (eg half-life, drug antibody ratio.” The company is in the process of raising its series A round, she told Fierce.

“Pearl Bio is recoding life for a new era of programmable or ‘smart’ biologics,” Schwartz wrote. “Series A resources will be used over the next two years to drive molecules to the clinic and further differentiate our technology with the ability to endow three distinct functionalities with tunable properties into biologics.”

Pearl was spun out of research from Farren Isaacs, Ph.D., and Michael Jewett, Ph.D., that centers on using ”genomically recoded organisms” to add synthetic chemistry to biologics. The company counts famed molecular engineer and serial entrepreneur George Church, Ph.D., as one of its scientific advisers. In June 2023, the U.S. granted a patent to Pearl and its founders that bolsters their multifunctional biologic ambitions, cementing future use of tools like synthetic amino acids and tethered ribosomes. 

As for Merck, it’s just the latest collab to land on its conveyor belt of licensing pacts. The Big Pharma's recent slate of bets has largely focused on oncology, including deals with C4 Therapeutics and Daichii Sankyo, alongside the $680 million acquisition of Harpoon Therapeutics. 

Juan Alvarez, Merck’s vice president of discovery biologics at Merck Research Labs, described Pearl in a release this morning as a “pioneer in developing recoded organisms.”