Merrimack Pharma Grabs $60M Upfront From Sanofi for Cancer Antibody

Xconomy Boston — 

Cambridge, MA-based Merrimack Pharmaceuticals struck a big deal today with Paris-based pharmaceutical giant Sanofi-Aventis that will bring $60 million in upfront cash to the smaller company in exchange for rights to co-develop and co-market an experimental antibody drug for cancer.

The deal calls for Sanofi to pay all developments costs, plus another $470 million in payments if the experimental drug reaches certain milestones in development, and a double-digit percentage royalty on sales if the drug becomes a marketed product, Merrimack said today in a statement. Merrimack also retained rights to co-promote the drug, MM-121, in the U.S., the world’s biggest pharmaceutical market.

Sanofi was willing to shell out that much cash to get its hands on the Merrimack drug, a genetically engineered antibody designed to block a receptor on cells known as ErbB3. That’s thought to be an important new target for cancer drugs, because it’s a member of the epidermal growth factor receptor family of proteins, which are known to amplify cell proliferation that can give rise to out-of-control tumors. Some of the world’s best-selling targeted cancer drugs, billion-dollar molecules like Lilly’s cetuximab (Erbitux) and Roche’s trastuzumab (Herceptin), are designed to interfere with other members of this family. Merrimack says its drug, currently in the first of three phases of clinical trials needed for FDA approval, is poised to be the first drug in its class to block the new target.

“Merrimack’s expertise along with their knowledge of biologics development has allowed them to successfully identify ErbB3 as a promising target and rapidly bring MM-121 into clinical development,” said Marc Cluzel, senior vice president of research and development for Sanofi, in a statement.

Merrimack, founded in 2000, derived MM-121 from what it calls its proprietary Network Biology method. The technique, developed with help from scientific advisers at Harvard and MIT, uses computer modeling to better understand disease pathways so it can perform high-speed profiling of potential protein drugs. Peter Sorger, a systems biology expert at Harvard Medical School, and Douglas Lauffenburger, a prominent bioengineering professor at MIT, are among the company’s scientific advisers.

The company’s MM-121 treatment is currently expected to advance to a second clinical trial for lung cancer later this year in combination with OSI Pharmaceuticals and Roche’s erlotinib (Tarceva), and the Merrimack drug is scheduled to be tested on its own in a mid-stage clinical trial in early 2010, according to a statement on the company’s website.

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