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Moderna, Merck to develop messenger RNA-based antiviral vaccines

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Moderna Therapeutics has announced a license and collaboration agreement with Merck, through a subsidiary, for the discovery and development of vaccines and passive immunity treatments against viral diseases using modified messenger RNA (mRNA). Moderna’s work in the collaboration will be led by Valera, its venture focused on the development of mRNA vaccines and therapeutics to fight infectious disease. Moderna is privately held, Cambridge, Mass.-based company founded by Flagship VentureLabs.

Valera, the second venture company formed by Moderna, is focused exclusively on the advancement of vaccines and therapeutics for the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases. Valera is leveraging Moderna’s messenger RNA Therapeutics platform, an entirely new in vivo drug technology that produces human proteins, antibodies and entirely novel protein constructs inside patient cells, which are in turn secreted or active intracellularly.

The vaccines work of Valera builds on a body of preclinical research at Moderna showing the ability of modified mRNA to express viral antigens in vivo and to induce robust immune responses. Valera’s therapeutic passive immunity programs will expand on Moderna’s research using mRNA to express antibodies that bind to viral and other targets. The robust data in these programs across a range of preclinical infectious disease models, together with the inherent, rapid turn-around time in creating novel mRNA constructs, provide Valera with a potentially powerful and versatile new platform for the creation of a broad array of vaccines and passive immunity therapies.

The three-year research collaboration (with the possibility of a one-year extension) is focused on the development of new mRNA-based treatments and vaccines against four undisclosed viruses. Merck will make an upfront cash payment to Moderna of $50 million to give Merck the ability to utilize the granted licenses to commercialize five product candidates, and will make a $50 million equity investment in Moderna. This is in addition to the $450 million financing from other investors previously announced Jan. 5.

Moderna will be eligible for undisclosed per-product development and commercial milestones under the license as well as tiered royalties on commercial sales. Merck will lead the discovery and development of candidates and commercialization of any products resulting from this license and collaboration agreement, while Moderna will design and synthesize the messenger RNA product candidates directed against selected targets.

Moderna’s mRNA Therapeutics platform builds on the discovery that modified mRNA can direct the body’s cellular machinery to produce nearly any protein of interest, from native proteins to antibodies and other entirely novel protein constructs with therapeutic activity inside and outside of cells. In addition to the license and collaboration announced today with Merck, Moderna has ongoing strategic agreements with Alexion Pharmaceuticals in the area of rare diseases, AstraZeneca in cardiovascular disease and some areas of oncology and DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) in biodefense.

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