Merck teams up with Themis to develop vaccines

Merck has struck a deal to work with Themis Bioscience on vaccine R&D. The agreement sees Merck invest in Themis and commit up to $200 million (€180 million) in milestones to secure vaccines against an undisclosed target.

Using research funding from Merck, Themis will develop vaccine candidates against the target using its measles virus vector-based platform. Themis licensed the measles vector from the Pasteur Institute and has since worked to industrialize the production process, giving it a platform it thinks can support an upcoming phase 3 trial of its internal lead asset. 

The result is a setup Themis CEO Erich Tauber describes as a “true plug-and-play platform.”

“We can exchange the cassettes with antigens or immunomodulators without affecting anything of the manufacturing system,” Tauber said. 

The progress of Themis’ internal programs and its work with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations have provided evidence of the company’s success in building on the licensed vector. But the Austrian biotech had never previously received the validation of a partnership with a big player in the industry. Having secured one industry deal, Themis is now hungry for more.

“We are very interested in making additional deals,” Tauber said. 

Through the Merck deal, Themis has received an equity investment that will support its efforts to lay the financial groundwork for the advancement of its in-house R&D program.

“[Merck’s investment is] part of a wider financing round which will be done to finance the company for its priority projects, including chikungunya,” Tauber said. 

Tauber and his colleagues have done most of the manufacturing and regulatory work needed to get a chikungunya vaccine candidate into phase 3, putting them on track to start the study “very soon.”

The upcoming financing round, which follows last year’s €10 million series C, will equip Themis to take the chikungunya vaccine forward while also advancing other candidates. Themis is gearing up to start clinical trials of its Zika and Lassa fever candidates while working to get the first of its oncology programs into humans.

Themis’ interest in oncology reflects a belief it can build on the innate power of its measles virus.

“The measles virus itself has a natural ability to kill cancer cells,” Tauber said. “We’ve further enhanced the natural oncolytic activity by putting in additional therapy-enhancing inserts, which can be immune modulators or other agents.”

The immuno-oncology work makes use of the same manufacturing platform as the infectious disease pipeline, freeing Themis from some of the work involved in starting an oncolytic virus program from scratch. Themis plans to move its lead cancer program into humans soon.