Merck KGaA, spying a major market, pays Aqilion €10M to tackle tough autoimmune target

Merck KGaA is betting 10 million euros ($10.7 million) that Aqilion has the keys to a tough target. The Big Pharma is handing over that sum, and committing 950 million euros ($1.02 billion) in milestones, for preclinical inhibitors of TAK1 that have applications in a range of autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.

Interest in the transforming growth factor-β-activated kinase 1 (TAK1) protein stems from its status as a critical node in TNF-mediated intracellular signaling. Targeting TNF with antibodies such as Remicade has improved outcomes in many autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, but some patients either never respond or relapse after initially responding. TAK1 offers a potential alternative route to TNF, but factors such as low bioavailability have held the field back.

Aqilion has persuaded Merck its preclinical project can overcome the barriers. The biotech has created selective TAK1 inhibitors with applications in autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. By designing new compounds to cross the blood-brain barrier, Aqilion expanded the program into neurological diseases including multiple sclerosis. The biotech has been open about its wish to partner the program, revealing last year that it wanted to land a collaborator with “the necessary resources” to optimize development.  

Enter Merck. Under the licensing deal, Aqilion will handle the design and synthesis of the small-molecule TAK1 inhibitors, leaving the German Big Pharma to lead preclinical pharmacology and biology studies.

The deal moves Merck into a space that is yet to become as congested as some areas of the autoimmune pipeline. EydisBio, building on the work of its founder, Duke University’s Timothy Haystead, Ph.D., has claimed to be the first organization “to develop a highly selective, orally bioavailable TAK1 inhibitor for the treatment of autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.”

Researchers including Haystead have also assessed the role TAK1 plays in the tumor microenvironment and the target’s potential in the treatment of immune-mediated cancers. But Aqilion’s statement about the deal with Merck only references therapeutic applications in autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.