- Merck & Co. will pay Moderna $250 million for joint rights to a personalized cancer vaccine under development by the two companies.
- The decision comes as the companies prepare for a fourth-quarter release of data from a significant trial of the vaccine in patients with high-risk melanoma. The Keynote-942 trial includes 157 patients who are either receiving Merck’s top-selling cancer drug Keytruda or a combination of Keytruda and the cancer vaccine, dubbed mRNA-4157.
- Under the expanded agreement, Merck and Moderna will share costs and profits from the vaccine equally. They will also collaborate on both development and marketing, according to a statement released Wednesday.
The cash infusion isn’t as significant for Moderna after the biotech hit a home run with the quick development of its COVID-19 vaccine in 2020. Still, Merck’s decision to exercise its option offers a major vote of confidence in the biotech’s cancer vaccine technology.
The goal is to tailor treatments to specific tumor mutations so the body’s immune system can better attack cancer cells. The work starts with tissue samples from the patient. Researchers study both normal and tumor cells in the samples to understand a patient’s specific mutations, then design a personalized vaccine that can be manufactured and administered within weeks.
The Keynote-942 trial is designed to follow patients for a year after surgery to remove melanoma tumors. The primary endpoint is survival without recurrence of disease; researchers are also looking for overall survival and distant metastasis-free survival. The companies are hoping to see an improvement over the use of Keytruda alone.
Merck and Moderna first began working together in January 2015, with the big drugmaker making a $50 million investment in the then-private biotech as part of a deal to develop mRNA vaccines and treatments. They teamed up again the following year to work on personalized cancer vaccines and, in 2018, expanded the partnership, with Merck taking over the clinical development of a cancer vaccine known as mRNA-5671. Merck abandoned that program earlier this year, however.
Merck plans to expense the latest $250 million payment to Moderna in the third quarter.
Moderna shares climbed 10% in trading on Wednesday morning.