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Astex and Taiho strike further oncology licensing deal with MSD

Cambridge-based Astex Pharmaceuticals and its sister company Taiho Pharmaceutical have struck a potentially highly lucrative licensing agreement with MSD.

Financial details of the deal have not been disclosed, but it represents a significant extension to the strategic oncology collaboration between the three companies, announced in January 2020.

Dr Harren Jhoti, CEO of Astex. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Harren Jhoti, CEO of Astex. Picture: Keith Heppell

The collaboration is focused on the discovery and development of small molecule inhibitors against a number of drug targets, including the KRAS oncogene, which are being investigated for the treatment of cancer.

The latest deal grants MSD - known as Merck & Co in the US and Canada - an exclusive licence under the programme to small molecule SHP2 inhibitor candidates.

Dr Harren Jhoti, president and CEO of Astex Pharmaceuticals (UK), said:”Together with our Taiho colleagues, we are delighted to extend our strategic alliance with MSD to include assets from our joint SHP2 programme that have been generated using our leading fragment-based drug discovery approach.”

This approach - pioneered by Astex - involves screening much smaller compounds than usual.

SHP2 is a dephosphorylating enzyme. It acts as a signaling molecule that regulates various cellular processes, including cell proliferation and differentiation, and acts as a regulator in the activation of the RAS signaling pathway such as KRAS. Along with its family members, KRAS is an oncogene altered in about a third of cancers - but was until recently considered undruggable after three decades of failed attempts.

Dr Teruhiro Utsugi, managing director at Taiho - a fellow Otsuka group company with Astex - said: “We are delighted to have extended the breadth of our strategic oncology collaboration with MSD to encompass assets from the joint Astex-Taiho SHP2 programme. This will allow for a number of important drug-drug combinations to be explored as potential new treatment modalities for patients.”

The option for MSD to acquire the exclusive licence to the SHP2 programme was included in the deal announced in January 2020. The overall collaboration was said at that stage to be worth a potential $2.5billion and featured a $50million upfront payment.

Astex, based on Cambridge Science Park, and Taiho, headquartered in Tokyo, will receive an option-exercise fee payment and be eligible for further undisclosed milestone payments, as well as tiered royalties on sales.

MSD will solely fund all further research and development and be responsible for commercialization of SHP2 products globally. Taiho has retained co-commercialisation rights in Japan and an option to promote SHP2 products in specific areas of South-East Asia.

Nick Haining, vice president, discovery oncology and immunology, MSD Research Laboratories, said: “We are pleased with the discovery research progress and collaboration with Taiho and Astex as we seek to develop new small molecule candidates for the treatment of cancer.

“We look forward to working more extensively with Taiho and Astex on the SHP2 pathway and accelerating this promising research, which has the potential to impact a number of cancer types.”

Read more

Astex Pharmaceuticals and Taiho Pharmaceutical sign cancer drug deal with Merck that could be worth $2.5billion

How Astex founder Dr Harren Jhoti has changed the drug discovery process

Founders of Astex Pharmaceuticals recalls its beginnings at 20th anniversary party

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