Agenus said today it will use its 4-Antibody Retrocyte Display® platform to discover and develop therapeutic antibodies for cancer against two undisclosed Merck & Co. checkpoint inhibitor targets, in a collaboration deal that could net Agenus more than $100 million. 

Merck will be responsible for clinical development and commercialization of candidates generated under the collaboration. In return, Merck agreed to pay Agenus up to about $100 million in payments tied to completion of clinical, regulatory, and commercial milestones for two Merck drug candidates, plus royalties on worldwide product sales.

Merck is among pharma giants scrambling to develop checkpoint inhibitors; its MK-3475 cancer immunotherapy candidate is a PD-1 inhibitor that Merck said in February it will assess clinical collaborations to assess in combination with drugs from Amgen, Incyte, and Pfizer—a month after launching a rolling submission to the FDA seeking to market MK-3475 for advanced melanoma in patients who were previously treated with ipilimumab.

“This collaboration with Agenus complements our active immuno-oncology discovery programs,” Eric Rubin, M.D., vp, oncology clinical research with Merck Research Laboratories, said in a statement.

Added Bob Stein, M.D., Ph.D., Agenus CSO: “We believe our Retrocyte Display technology has significant advantages for creation of high quality antibody development candidates. This collaboration broadens our efforts in immuno-oncology beyond our previously disclosed checkpoint programs with a world-class research and development partner.”

Agenus acquired the Retrocyte Display technology platform along with other assets of 4-Antibody when it bought the private European-based biopharmaceutical company in February. Retrocyte Display is designed to generate fully human therapeutic antibody drug candidates through its use of a high-throughput approach incorporating Immunoglobulin G (IgG) format human antibody libraries expressed in mammalian B-lineage cells.

Agenus has multiple preclinical checkpoint modulator programs in development, some of which target checkpoint proteins GITR and OX40, as well as agonists and antagonists of TIM-3, LAG-3, PD-1 and CTLA-4. The latter two have shown promise in immuno-oncology clinical studies among checkpoint molecules that have bound with monoclonal antibodies designed to help immune cells overcome the checkpoint defenses of cancer cells. Through a collaboration with Ludwig Cancer Research, Agenus has programs to discover and develop fully human monoclonal antibodies that bind to key checkpoint proteins and activate or block their activities for use in cancer therapy.

Agenus is an immuno-oncology company specializing in development of checkpoint modulators (CPMs), heat shock protein vaccines and adjuvants. The company’s heat shock protein vaccines for cancer and infectious disease are in Phase II studies, while its QS-21 Stimulon® adjuvant platform is being used in partnerships with GlaxoSmithKline and Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Alzheimer Immunotherapy subsidiary, and includes several candidates in Phase III trials.

In all, Agenus has 22 clinical programs in development, both alone and through partnerships.

Previous articlePayers Wrestle with Reimbursement
Next article“Junk” DNA Tied to Heart Failure