- Merck & Co. announced Wednesday plans to acquire Calporta Therapeutics, a San Diego biotech focused on drugs that support lysosome function.
- Lysosomes are cellular organs responsible for breaking down and removing waste. Calporta's business revolves around a theory that promoting lysosome function could combat diseases tied to the toxic build up of certain molecules. The biotech's drugs are at the preclinical stage, targeting an ion channel researchers believe regulates lysosome activity.
- Merck wants to further study how Calporta's drugs affect the brain's ability to clear toxic proteins, a key problem in diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Calporta, which is backed by the venture capital firm Avalon Ventures, has been assessing the potential of its drugs to treat various neurodegenerative and lysosomal storage disorders.
Like many of its peers, Merck has pulled back from neuroscience drug development as clinical failures — from pain to depression to Alzheimer's — continued to pile up across the industry. The Calporta acquisition, though, provides evidence that Merck remains interested in the field's most prized disease targets.
Alzheimer's, in particular, takes an enormous toll on patients and healthcare spending. Wall Street therefore expects a multi-billion dollar market opportunity for the first drugmaker to bring an effective Alzheimer's treatment to market. Biogen may win that race with a drug called aducanumab, though confounding data make it unclear whether regulators will greenlight it.
Merck sees Calporta's drugs, which go after an ion channel known as TRPML1, as potential treatments not only for Alzheimer's, but other diseases like Parkinson's and ALS. The big pharma is paying $576 million for the small biotech, a sum that includes both upfront and contingent milestone payments.
As of Sept. 30, Merck held nearly $8 billion in cash and cash equivalents.
"Increasing evidence points to the accumulation of toxic proteins as a common mechanism in neurodegenerative conditions," Fiona Marshall, vice president of neuroscience discovery at Merck Research Laboratories, said in a Nov. 13 statement. "We look forward to conducting further research to evaluate the potential of TRPML1 agonists to activate a natural clearance mechanism the brain employs to clear toxic proteins."
Toxic proteins have been central to Alzheimer's drug development. One such protein, amyloid beta, is responsible for taking up the lion's share of research dollars and attention.
Not long ago, Merck had a drug named verubecestat that targeted conglomerations of misfolded amyloid protein. The company ultimately scrapped it, though, after a pair of Phase 3 study misfires.
Merck now only lists one neuroscience drug in mid- to late-stage testing, an experimental therapy for schizophrenia known as MK-8189.