Under the terms of the research collaboration with Merck,known as MSD outside the United States and Canada, Zymeworks will receive anupfront fee and is eligible to receive research, development and regulatorymilestones with a potential value of as much as $187 million, as well as tieredroyalty payments on sales of products.
Both companies will collaborate to advance the technologyplatform and work on novel bi-specific antibodies, which are designed to bindto two different drug targets for broad use in clinical applications, such asoncology or autoimmune disease. Merck will work to progress the bi-specifictherapeutic antibody candidates through clinical development and will haveexclusive worldwide commercialization rights to products derived from thecollaboration.
"Zymeworks' technology platform has the potential to providea unique solution for engineering novel antibodies," said Dr. Richard Murray,senior vice president of biologics research at Merck, in the news release aboutthe deal. "At Merck, we continue to build upon our portfolio of noveltechnologies aimed at developing a new generation of biologic candidatesdesigned to provide improved therapeutic properties."
"From the day we got started in the business of biologics,we had an eye out for Merck as a company we really wanted to do a deal with,"Dr. Ali Tehrani, CEO of Zymeworks, tells ddn."An early thing I learned is that the world is not your playground in thisbusiness, and you need a focus—and part of that focus was thinking aboutcompanies we most wanted to do deals with. I admit that with the acquisition ofSchering, I was nervous like a lot of people, but I think it brought them a lotof strengths and made them even more desirable a company with which to form acollaboration. Now we have that chance, bringing our Azymetric platform whilethey bring their drug expertise."
He also had noted earlier, in the news release about thedeal, that this collaboration is "an important validation of our scientificleadership in the field of structure-guided protein engineering and we lookforward to working with Merck to realizing the full value of this novelplatform technology across a range of therapeutic indications."
Antibodies developed using the Azymetric platform, unlikenative antibodies, consist of two different heavy chains engineered toexclusively assemble into a single molecule, thereby allowing bi-specificbinding of two different antigens or drug targets, Zymeworks notes. Becausethey have two different but complementary heavy chain subunits, Azymetricantibodies are classified as "heterodimeric" antibodies—reportedly, similar tonatural antibodies, heterodimeric antibodies retain long serum half-lives andthe ability to induce effector function.
"Antibody therapeutics are a very hot area, and if you're inthe business of drug development and you're looking at biologics, antibodiesare attractive, and have proved to be effective drugs," Tehrani says. "Withinthe antibody space, there is a lot of interest in multivalent bi-specificmolecules that can create opportunities for more efficacious and potent drugs."
The timing for a deal like this now is right, he says,because there is no clear leader yet in the bi-specific space.
"There is a race, and someone is going to come out as one ofthe leaders and maybe that someone will also 'win' the race," Tehrani notes."Who that will be depends on the right technology and platform and the rightcombination of teams to get there. I think that Merck placing a bet on us withthis collaboration shows that they are very committed to this race."
Zymeworks is a privately held biotechnology companydeveloping antibody therapeutics primarily for the treatment of oncology,autoimmunity and inflammatory diseases. The company's proprietary ZymeCADstructure-guided protein engineering technology and its novel Azymetric andAlbuCORE platforms are said to enable the development of highly potentbi-specific antibodies and multivalent protein therapeutics targeted across arange of indications. The company is growing its preclinical biotherapeuticspipeline through a combination of in-house research and development programsand strategic collaborations.
Looking toward this most recent and highly sought-aftercollaboration, Tehrani says of Merck: "It's nice to be inspired; the Merck terminspires the Zymeworks team."