- Artiva Biotherapeutics, a young company developing cell therapies to treat cancer, has landed a major partner for one of its programs, announcing Thursday that Merck & Co. signed on to help develop at least two candidates.
- The program in question uses Artiva's "off-the-shelf" allogeneic cell manufacturing platform and some proprietary technology to create new CAR-NK — or chimeric antigen receptor-natural killer — cell therapies that target antigens associated with solid tumors. Deal terms hold that Artiva gets $30 million upfront and another $15 million if Merck chooses to undertake a third research program. Merck will also provide research funding and potential milestone payments totaling as much as $612 million.
- For Merck, the agreement offers the possibility of an expanded pipeline as the company works to broaden its cancer business beyond the blockbuster cancer drug Keytruda. Merck will be responsible for clinical and commercial development of Artiva therapies that make it to human testing.
Little data on the effectiveness of CAR-NK therapies is available, yet they are drawing increasing interest from major drugmakers. While similar in concept to cell-based treatments like Novartis' Kymriah, CAR-NK therapies draw on natural killer cells instead of T cells to attack cancers.
Manufacturing CAR-T therapies is also a complicated process, involving the extraction of a patient's own cells, which are then engineered and reinjected into the patient. Artiva's CAR-NK program, by contrast, uses donated natural killer cells derived from umbilical cord blood, allowing the company to produce a medicine that can be used "off the shelf." Such an approach, if proven effective, could offer a major advantage over patient-derived cell therapies.
Early data appear to support some of these potential advantages. A study of 11 patients led by the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston suggested that CAR-NK could attack cancer cells while avoiding some serious side effects associated with CAR-T. Japan's largest drugmaker, Takeda, has licensed that therapy from MD Anderson.
Other drug companies have taken notice as well. In November, Sanofi agreed to pay 308 million euros, or roughly $374 million, to the Dutch biotech Kiadis Pharma for access to the company's cell therapy technology. And last April, Johnson & Johnson announced a $100 million deal with Fate Therapeutics to develop CAR-NK and CAR-T products.
While Merck is working to expand its pipeline, the company will likely be hard-pressed to find a new treatment that can compete with Keytruda, an immuno-oncology drug that generated $3.7 billion in revenue during just the third quarter of 2020.
Currently, only two CAR-T treatments are approved: Kymriah and Gilead's Yescarta. Kymriah had sales of $141 million in the fourth quarter of 2020, while Yescarta had sales of $138 million in the third quarter of 2020. Gilead announces fourth-quarter results on Feb. 4.