- Merck & Co. will invest $125 million into Moderna Therapeutics, expanding an existing partnership to explore whether a shared antigen mRNA vaccine can prove effective in treating cancers with a common, but difficult-to-target, genetic signature.
- Together, the companies will advance Moderna's vaccine — called mRNA-5671 — into human studies, with plans to conduct further testing in combination with other immuno-oncology drugs.
- Per the new collaboration, Merck will take the reins for clinical development of mRNA-5671 while Moderna remains responsible for clinical supply. Merck also gains the right to opt-in on other development of the vaccine upon payment of an undisclosed fee.
Having just closed a $500 million Series G funding round, Moderna is already getting started on its next step along the financial alphabet. Merck's $125 million equity investment comes in the form of Series H preferred equity — bumping the biotech's total fundraising in its 7-year history to nearly $2 billion.
Biotech riches have flowed to Moderna on the promise of its mRNA technology and the biotech's sweeping ambition to hijack human biology to treat a wide range of human diseases. Rather than making drugs designed to inhibit the action of disease-causing proteins, Moderna proposes using messenger RNA to essentially instruct the body to treat the disease on its own.
In the case of mRNA-5671, Moderna designed the vaccine to encode for four common mutations of an oncogene known as KRAS. Mutations of this gene occur in about 90% of pancreatic cancers and nearly a third of non-small cell lung cancers. Yet efforts to target the mutation have fallen short, earning KRAS a reputation as "undruggable."
The idea is to use the mRNA vaccine to generate and present KRAS mutations to the immune system in hopes of teaching the body to recognize and attack KRAS-mutated tumors.
"Augmentation of immune responses offers great promise in cancer therapy, as our work with the PD-1-specific antibody Keytruda has shown," said Roger Perlmutter, head of Merck Research Laboratories, in a May 3 statement.
Merck and Moderna already are at work on another vaccine, called mRNA-4157 and personalized to each patient. Moderna dosed the first patient in a Phase 1 study last November. The candidate will also be tested in combination with Merck's PD-1 inhibitor Keytruda (pembrolizumab).
Cancer vaccines are also gaining more attention in the oncology field overall. An analysis by the Cancer Research Institute and published in the Annals of Oncology in January found 605 cancer vaccines in development. Nearly half of those candidates, however, were in preclinical stages.