U.K.-based F-star and Germany’s Merck established a potentially €1 billion (approximately $1.13 billion) strategic collaboration to develop and commercialize five of F-star’s bispecific immuno-oncology antibodies (mAb2™). The deal includes F-star’s lead preclinical asset FS118, which targets lymphocyte activation gene 3 (LAG-3) and programmed death-ligand 1 (PD-L1), plus four additional bispecific antibodies selected by Merck from F-star’s platform.

The deal expands the firms’ existing relationship. In 2011, F-star and Merck Serono set up a research, license, and commercialization agreement to discover and develop monospecific and bispecific antibody-derived candidates targeting inflammatory diseases.

Under terms of the new immuno-oncology deal, Merck will pay F-star €115 million (approximately $130 million) upfront and make additional R&D funding and milestone payments over the first 2 years. The firm retains an option to acquire exclusive development and commercialization rights to the five bispecific antibody programs once F-star has delivered predefined data packages.

Merck-owned bifunctional antibody M7824 is in Phase I development. Discovered in-house, the antibody targets PD-L1 and transforming growth factor-β (TGF-β). “Our collaboration with F-star will help us to rapidly enhance our pipeline and grow our portfolio of bispecific immunotherapies,” commented Luciano Rossetti, M.D., evp and global head of R&D at Merck’s biopharma business. This deal complements our internal capabilities in immuno-oncology and positions us as a potential leader in this important area of research.”

If Merck exercises its option to acquire the five F-star programs, it will do so through the acquisition of F-star’s asset-centric vehicle, F-star Delta. John Haurum, M.D., Ph.D., CEO of F-star, maintains that its business model provides a flexible deal-making framework and maximizes the value of the company's bispecific antibody programs and technology platform. “This approach also provides us with additional nondilutive cash to support our investment in the development of our own pipeline of bispecific antibodies, with a strong focus on immuno-oncology.”

In April, F-star confirmed that Bristol-Myers Squibb had elected not to exercise its option to acquire the human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2)-targeting antibody fragment FS102, which is undergoing Phase I testing in patients with breast and gastric cancer. 

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