Merck is back in Alzheimer's saddle with $1B-plus Cerevance pact, years after dropping the BACE

Another Big Pharma is entering—or rather re-entering—the Alzheimer’s ring. Merck & Co. has signed a billion-dollar biobucks deal with Cerevance to identify new therapies for the devastating neurodegenerative disease.

First, the details: Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Cerevance will receive a $25 million upfront payment from the pharma plus as much as $1.1 billion in milestones and royalties later on to develop novel targets for Alzheimer’s. The deal also involves a single discovery-stage program that will be licensed out to Merck.

Cerevance is a central nervous system disorders-focused biotech backed by Bill Gates. Its main program so far has been the Parkinson’s disease therapy CVN424, which was just shown in a mid-phase trial to reduce the number of off days that patients have when their symptoms recur despite being on medication.

The deal with Merck marks a major validation for the small company, which uses its Nuclear Enriched Transcript Sort sequencing (NETSseq) technology platform to identify new targets for brain disorders.

As for Merck, the deal marks a return of sorts to Alzheimer’s. The company’s current neuroscience portfolio includes therapies for treatment-resistant depression and schizophrenia. Alzheimer’s has been absent from the list for years since the company walked away from the once promising candidate verubecestat.

The failure of the beta-site amyloid precursor protein cleaving enzyme 1, or BACE1, came in 2017 as a clutch of Big Pharmas saw similar candidates implode in the clinic. Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly and AstraZeneca, Biogen and Eisai, and Amgen and Novartis all got caught up in the BACE craze, only to discontinue candidates.

Merck was mum on the Cerevance news, saying in a brief statement that a new understanding of neurodegenerative diseases is driving potential new mechanisms that could one day mean new therapies. The company did not return a request for comment as of publication.