Merck KGaA amps up next-gen antibody pact with Ablynx

By John Carroll and Tracy Staton

Just days after AbbVie ($ABBV) embraced Ablynx's antibody tech ($ABLX) in an $840 million partnership, Merck KGaA--which also unveiled a shakeup in its management team today--has stepped back up to the deal table, offering some significant R&D support for a slate of new programs in an expansion of their ongoing partnership.

Merck KGaA R&D subsidiary Merck Serono will provide $35 million over four years to fund a dedicated unit that will apply the Belgian biotech's "Nanobody" approach to all of Merck's core disease areas, including oncology, immuno-oncology, immunology and neurology. The unit will work on new programs through in vivo proof of principle.

"We have established a very trustful and productive partnership with Ablynx and a first compound has entered Phase I at the beginning of 2013," said Bernhard Kirschbaum, the head of global R&D at Merck Serono. "Through our extensive collaboration history with Ablynx, both sides know how to best conceptually design programmes to ensure technology fit, differentiation potential and a clear scientific rationale. Our common goal is to develop novel biologics with a high degree of differentiation for high-value therapeutic targets."

Ablynx has inked a slate of discovery deals with some big outfits, like Boehringer Ingelheim, Novartis ($NVS) and Merck ($MRK). They were all drawn in by Ablynx's Nanobodies, which are designed to latch on to their target better, offering a lower risk of toxicity allied with a high affinity for the target. Due to their much smaller size--about one-tenth the size of currently used antibodies--these antibodies can also act more like a small molecule than a large molecule, inhibiting enzymes.

As FiercePharma reports, the new deal comes as Merck KGaA is rejigging its pharmaceuticals management. Hoping some integration will amp up growth in the drugs business, the Darmstadt, Germany-based company has promoted pharma chief Stefan Oschmann to a new job overseeing prescription and consumer drugs, biosimilars and allergy fighters, previously segregated under separate management.

The move underscores Merck's ambitions for its allergy business, Allergopharma, now a wholly owned unit, and for biosimilars development. It's also part of an ongoing restructuring at Merck Serono, which has laid off hundreds of workers and shut down sites in a global overhaul of R&D and manufacturing. And it shows how important pharma is to the German company, whose liquid crystals business has been faltering.

- here's the press release
- read the story from FiercePharma

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