Merck KGaA, F-Star in bispecific biobucks bonanza deal

The two countries’ governments may not be getting along right now as a long divorce plays out, but it’s a marriage of science for Germany’s Merck and Cambridge, U.K.-based F-Star as the two pair up for a new bispecific research deal.  

The early-stage pact, worth €115 million ($130 million) in upfront, R&D funding and milestone payments in the first 2 years, is focused on F-star's bispecific antibody platform as an aide to Merck KGaA’s I-O platform, which recently got its first approval with it and Pfizer’s PD-L1 med Bavencio (avelumab) in a rare type of skin cancer.

The deal could be worth up to €1 billion in biobucks as Merck also holds on to the option to acquire the programs from the small but growing U.K. biotech and former Fierce 15 winner.

“Our collaboration with F-star will help us to rapidly enhance our pipeline and grow our portfolio of bispecific immunotherapies,” said Luciano Rossetti, EVP and global head of R&D at the biopharma business of Merck KGaA.

“This deal complements our internal capabilities in immuno-oncology and positions us as a potential leader in this important area of research.”

The German biopharma has the option to acquire five of F-star’s bispecific programs in total, and includes exclusive development and sales rights to F-star’s preclinical lead asset FS118, which is designed to block LAG-3 (Lymphocyte-Activation Gene 3) and PD-L1.

Merck KGaA already has a bifunctional antibody in its pipeline, known as M7824, which is making its way through phase 1 tests and is believed to combine two mechanisms in one molecule to fight cancer.

“The addition of assets from F-star’s bispecific antibody platform enrich and complement Merck KGaA’s existing in-house technologies investigating molecules that offer the potential advantage of taking a dual approach to tackling cancer,” the German company said.

F-Star already has tie-ups with some big names, including a $475 million pact with Bristol-Myers Squibb penned back in 20154, and early last year signed another bispecific deal with AbbVie.

Just a few weeks back Roche published early clinical data on its bispecific antibody in heavily pretreated patients with metastatic colorectal cancer, with the readout hinting that the T cell-activating antibody may improve outcomes in this hard-to-treat population when given as a monotherapy and in combination with its anti-PD-L1 drug Tecentriq (atezolizumab).