Merck & Co. will partner with Moderna Therapeutics to develop antiviral vaccines and passive immunity therapies based on Moderna’s modified messenger-RNA (mRNA) technology. The deal could generate up to $100 million-plus for Moderna, and raises the company’s haul from partners and investors in the new year to more than a half-billion dollars.

The three-year research collaboration with Merck includes the possibility of a one-year extension. The partnership will focus on the development of five product candidates—new mRNA-based treatments and vaccines—against four undisclosed viruses.

Merck will lead the discovery and development of candidates and commercialization of any products resulting from this license and collaboration agreement. Merck has agreed to pay $50 million upfront toward licenses to access Moderna’s technology, and will make a $50 million equity investment in the biotech. Moderna will be eligible for undisclosed per-product development and commercial milestones under the license as well as tiered royalties on commercial sales.

“By combining Merck's strength in vaccine and antiviral therapeutic development with  Moderna's mRNA Therapeutics technology we are well positioned to develop differentiated candidates with the potential to provide meaningful benefit to patients,” Roger M. Perlmutter, M.D., Ph.D., president of Merck Research Laboratories, said in a statement.

Moderna has agreed to design and synthesize the mRNA product candidates directed against selected targets through its mRNA Therapeutics™ platform. The platform builds on the discovery that modified mRNA can direct the body's cellular machinery to produce nearly any protein of interest—ranging from native proteins to antibodies and other entirely novel protein constructs with therapeutic activity inside and outside of cells.

In its partnership with Merck, Moderna's work will be led by its Valera venture company, whose launch the biotech announced just last week. Valera—which is recruiting for a president and chief medical officer—is focused exclusively on fighting viral, bacterial, and parasitic infectious diseases by developing mRNA vaccines and therapeutics.

Valera’s vaccines work builds on Moderna preclinical research, which according to the company has shown the ability of modified mRNA to express viral antigens in vivo, as well as induce robust immune responses. Valera's therapeutic passive immunity programs will expand on Moderna's research by using mRNA to express antibodies that bind to viral and other targets.

Just last week, Moderna said it raised $450 million in new funding to support the further expansion of its mRNA Therapeutics™ platform across multiple modalities and therapeutic areas. The company also said it plans to add 100 staffers—to include “industry leaders, drug development experts and scientists”—to its workforce of 145 employees in coming months.

Through its expansion, Moderna aims to grow beyond its current active development of 45 preclinical programs in oncology, cardiovascular disease, rare diseases, and infectious diseases.

Since it was founded in 2011 by Flagship VentureLabs™, Moderna has secured more than $950 million in funding through financing and commercial partnerships.

Since it was founded in 2011 by Flagship VentureLabs™, Moderna has secured more than $950 million in funding through financing and commercial partnerships. Merck joins Moderna collaboration partners that include Alexion Pharmaceuticals in the area of rare diseases, AstraZeneca in cardiovascular disease and some areas of oncology, and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in biodefense. Moderna also maintains a long-term strategic collaboration with Karolinska Institutet and Karolinska University Hospital, announced in October, concentrating on early-stage drug discovery and development.

Moderna’s other venture company, Onkaido, is focused on developing oncology drugs.

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