Program will focus on transcription factor that orchestrates Th17 cell differentiation and IL-17 production.

Lycera will receive $12 million up front from Merck and committed research funding as part of a collaboration focused on developing oral drugs targeting T helper 17 (Th17) cells for the treatment of autoimmune diseases. The firms will work together on the discovery and preclinical development of promising candidates, after which Merck will shoulder all clinical development responsibilities. The agreement gives Merck worldwide commercialization and marketing rights to resulting drugs, although Lycera retains a profit share option for the U.S. market on all relevant products. The firm could in addition receive up to $295 million in research, development, and regulatory milestones from Merck if multiple major indications are approved, plus double-digit royalties and sales milestones.

“This joint partnership is a significant validation of Lycera’s discovery capabilities and our Th17 program, and enables us to expand the scope of our research in this promising area to expedite our discovery efforts as well as our timeline to enter the clinic,” remarks Gary D. Glick, Ph.D., Lycera founder and CSO.

Th17 cells produce the inflammatory cytokine interleukin-17 (IL-17), which plays an important role in the pathogenesis of immune-mediated diseases including psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, and asthma, Lycera points out. The firm’s Th17 program targets retinoic acid related orphan receptor γt (RORγt), a transcription factor that coordinates the differentiation of Th17 cells and hence transcription of IL-17 genes. Lycera claims it has already identified novel, potent, and specific inhibitors of RORγt that reduce IL-17 production in primary cells and in vivo.

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