Merck buys Calporta for preclinical neurodegeneration assets

Merck is committing to a financial package worth up to $576 million to buy Calporta. (Merck)

Merck has struck a deal to buy Calporta Therapeutics for up to $576 million. The takeover centers on TRPML1 agonists designed to treat neurodegenerative disorders by clearing toxic proteins from the brain. 

Avalon Ventures and GlaxoSmithKline set Calporta up in 2015 as part of their collaborative effort to found up to 10 biotechs. The startup was subsequently supported by Avalon’s COI Pharmaceuticals incubator, equipping it to build on research into links between lysosomal ion channel TRPML1 and diseases.

At launch, Calporta presented TRPML1 agonism as a way to treat lysosomal storage diseases such as Niemann-Pick disease type C, reflecting the potential for the mechanism to reverse the accumulation of cholesterol and biolipids that characterizes the conditions. Merck sees a different opportunity that Calporta only touched on at the time of its launch. 

“Increasing evidence points to the accumulation of toxic proteins as a common mechanism in neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Alzheimer's. We look forward to conducting further research to evaluate the potential of TRPML1 agonists to activate a natural clearance mechanism the brain employs to clear toxic proteins,” Fiona Marshall, vice president for neuroscience discovery at Merck Research Laboratories, said in a statement.

Merck is committing to a financial package worth up to $576 million to buy Calporta, although, as the TRPML1 agonists are yet to reach the clinic, the undisclosed upfront portion of the deal is likely to be a small piece of the total. 

In recent years, Merck has suffered its share of neuroscience setbacks, notably with the failures of BACE1 inhibitor verubecestat in prodromal and mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s disease. However, Merck has continued to pick up neurodegeneration assets, bagging an anti-tau antibody from Teijin Pharma and now adding Calporta’s TRPML1 agonists to its pipeline. 

The acquisition comes two months after GSK bought another of the startups created through its pact with Avalon. That deal saw GSK take ownership of Sitari Pharmaceuticals, a preclinical-stage biotech focused on the autoimmune digestive disorder celiac disease.