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




Astex Pharmaceuticals and Taiho Pharmaceutical Co have signed a deal with MSD to develop new cancer drugs that could eventually be worth $2.5billion.

The companies - both part of the Otsuka group - will receive an aggregate upfront payment of $50million as part of the strategic alliance.

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

In return, they will provide MSD - known as Merck in the US and Canada - with an exclusive global licence to their small molecule inhibitor candidates.

The alliance is focused on developing these inhibitors against several oncology drug targets, including the KRAS oncogene.

Dr Harren Jhoti, president and CEO of Astex, said: “Together with our Taiho colleagues we are delighted to be working with Merck, one of the global leaders in oncology drug development, on this strategic alliance. This collaboration is another testament to Astex’s position as the leader in fragment-based drug discovery.”

Under the terms of the deal, MSD, Taiho and Astex will combine preclinical candidates and their data with expertise from their respective research programs.

They will receive up to approximately $2.5billion contingent upon the achievement of preclinical, clinical, regulatory and sales milestones for multiple products arising from the agreement, as well as tiered royalties on sales.

MSD will fund the research and development and take responsibility for commercialisation of products globally.

Taiho has retained co-commercialisation rights in Japan and an option to promote in specific areas of South East Asia.

Dr Jhoti told the Cambridge Independent that Astex was not planning additional recruitment as a result of the alliance, because it had sufficient resource.

He added: “Astex and Taiho both have very productive discovery efforts and assets in the preclinical and early clinical space. Following a recent review of our joint oncology portfolio we decided to explore a strategic alliance that would allow for the acceleration of key programs.

“We have not disclosed the specific targets that we are working on. However KRAS is among the most frequently mutated oncogenes in cancer and a number of specific mutations have emerged as a focus of discovery and development efforts. Through this collaboration we are not limited to exploring only the G12C mutation.”

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

Dr Roger M Perlmutter, president of Merck Research Laboratories, said: “At Merck we continue to pursue new regimens designed to extend the benefits of highly selective therapies to more patients with cancer.

“This agreement with Taiho and Astex combines our respective small molecule assets and industry-leading expertise in cancer cell signaling to enable development of the most promising drug candidates.”

Astex, based on Cambridge Science Park, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co, based in Tokyo, Japan, while Taiho is one of Otsuka Holdings Co’s operating companies. They have been collaborating on drug discovery programs since Astex was acquired by Otsuka in 2013.

Dr Teruhiro Utsugi, managing director at Taiho, said: “Taiho has used its unique and proprietary drug discovery platform to generate a number of small molecule inhibitors.

“This alliance builds on our KRAS research up to now and together with Merck, allows us to combine our expertise to significantly accelerate the global research, development, and commercialisation of a number of our mutant KRAS programs by accessing external talent and resources.”

KRAS is estimated to occur in more than 90 per cent of pancreatic cancers and about 20 per cent of non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLC). It is is associated with poorer outcomes for patients.

Dr Jhoti said Astex and Taiho also have an interest in the MAPK signalling pathway and have a number of programs including SHP2 in preclinical development and ERK 1/2 in phase I.

Astex, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, has pioneered fragment-based drug discovery, which involves screening much smaller compounds than usual.

It has had previous success with Kisqali, a breast cancer drug it developed with Novartis, and erdafitinib, a drug developed with Janssen Pharmaceutica NV.

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