Merck wagers $434M on Arvinas and its protein-disposal system

Arvinas CEO Manny Litchman

Merck ($MRK) has partnered up with fast-moving upstart Arvinas to get its hands on technology that promises to give drug developers a crack at some previously untouchable targets, using the body's natural garbage system to dump troublesome proteins.

Under the deal, Merck will hand the New Haven, CT, biotech an up-front payment and research funding, promising more cash tied to development milestones and setting Arvinas' maximum haul at $434 million if everything works out over the multiyear agreement. In exchange, Merck will get a chance to use the company's proteolysis-targeting chimera, or PROTAC, technology, which creates small-molecule treatments that mark proteins for degradation.

Based on work out of Craig Crews' Yale University labs, PROTAC treatments are designed to get rid of unwanted proteins by triggering a cell's natural clean-up system, marking targets for removal and letting the body's degradation mechanisms do the rest. Arvinas, launched in 2013, has largely focused its internal efforts on oncology, but the Merck deal spans multiple disease targets in an undisclosed array of therapeutic areas, the company said.

The majority of protein-targeting therapeutics in the market or in development work by either inhibiting or boosting their targets, whether via antibodies or small-molecule chemicals. But only about a quarter of the body's roughly 20,000 proteins can be effectively drugged that way, Arvinas CEO Manny Litchman said. By attacking proteins from within their home cells, however, Arvinas' technology can potentially open up new avenues of therapeutic development, he said, exposing some long-untouchable targets to guided degradation.

That potential was a major selling point for Merck, Litchman said, and now it's on Arvinas to demonstrate that its technology can come through in the proof-of-concept stage, rolling into what the CEO expects to be "a true collaboration." Merck has the option to expand the deal to include more disease targets, triggering an undisclosed payment, and Litchman believes the agreement could create a model for Arvinas' future partnerships.

The company has held onto a host of internal programs also based on PROTAC, including a lead oncology asset Arvinas expects to get into the clinic in the middle of next year. The biotech will likely look to ink one or two more deals along the way, Litchman said, at once cautious not to spread itself too thin and optimistic that Merck's big co-sign will help it bring would-be partners to the table.

"I think when a company like Merck has done deep due diligence, surveyed the competitive landscape and selected Arvinas as the best platform out there for protein degradation, that's a signal for others we've talked to that perhaps a deeper dive may be warranted," Litchman said.

Arvinas got rolling with a $15 million A round from Canaan Partners and 5AM Ventures, licensing Crews' technology and assembling a team of investigators to push it forward. The biotech quickly moved to establish preclinical proof of concept for PROTAC, recruiting Litchman, an 18-year Novartis ($NVS) veteran, in time to start showing off the platform at January's JP Morgan Healthcare conference.

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