Merck taps contract research firm IRBM for peptides to hit back at pandemic virus

Big Pharma Merck has been pretty quiet on its R&D for COVID-19, but while keen to keep hype to a minimum, its research work in the background has been growing.

Over the past few months, it has penned a series of partnerships, deals and a buyout with Themis, Ridgeback Bio and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), with all three focusing on both vaccines and treatments.

Merck CEO Ken Frazier has tried to dampen the hyperbole coming from many of his biopharma peers, cautioning about how long it takes to make new drugs and vaccines against new threats—something the company knows well from its efforts in Ebola.

Now, it’s striking another new deal but being characteristically quiet about it: In a brief release, and declining an interview with Fierce Biotech, the pharma has teamed up with Italian biopharma services company IRBM to “identify and develop novel peptide therapeutics active against different strains of coronavirus, including SARS-CoV-2,” the virus causing COVID-19.

“The parties will collaborate in hit to lead optimization and preclinical drug development to rapidly advance selected candidates towards the clinic,” the pair added.

This is, of course, very early work but adds to the hundreds of new and repurposed drug efforts, as well as vaccines, currently development around the world.

But why peptides in the fight against coronavirus? A spokesperson for IRBM said that: “Whilst we cannot disclose the therapeutic target and the anticipated MOA of the peptides, we can say that in the last few years peptides have emerged as new modality to tackle novel targets where PPIs are involved and it has been previously demonstrated to be a valid therapeutic approach to treat other viruses such as HIV and SARS-CoV.

“The IRBM peptide team has extensive knowledge of peptide therapeutics and bringing peptides to the clinic. IRBM also has great experience of the infectious disease area not just with peptides but also small molecules having a track record of success in the development of antiviral drugs, including HIV integrase inhibitors and HCV protease inhibitors.”

Last year, the CRO also penned a collaboration with MD Anderson Cancer Center for the development of monoclonal antibodies against an undisclosed immune checkpoint target. 

“With this new outbreak of coronavirus, it makes sense for Merck and IRBM to join forces in this crucial area and work together on a treatment for this devastating pandemic as well as possible future pandemics,” said Carlo Toniatti, chief scientific officer at IRBM. “Our accomplished team here and at MSD have a long heritage in the field of peptide development and have the expertise required to tackle this challenging project”              

“MSD and IRBM have a proud history of conducting breakthrough antiviral research,” added Daria Hazuda, vice president for infectious diseases and vaccines discovery for Merck Research Laboratories and chief scientific officer of the MSD Exploratory Science Centre. “We look forward to advancing this important program.”

No financials of the deal were shared.