Merck wagers $290M on a cancer treatment from Finnish drugmaker

Dive Brief:

  • Merck & Co. has acquired rights to an experimental prostate cancer treatment developed by Finnish drugmaker Orion in a move to bolster its oncology pipeline.
  • Under deal terms, which the companies announced Wednesday, Merck will pay Orion $290 million upfront to co-develop and co-commercialize the medicine. The companies can also convert the initial deal into a global exclusive license for Merck, which would come with milestone payments and “tiered, double-digit” royalties for Orion.
  • Researchers are currently testing the drug, dubbed ODM-208, in a Phase 2 trial for patients with metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer. As many as 20% of patients with advanced prostate cancer develop the castration-resistant form within five years, and the vast majority of those see their tumors spread, according to Merck.

Dive Insight:

The licensing deal is one of the largest this year in terms of upfront payments, comparable to Gilead’s $300 million agreement with Dragonfly Therapeutics for a cancer immunotherapy. For Orion, the cash windfall is equal to more than a quarter of its roughly $1 billion in sales last year.

Merck has been steadily expanding its cancer business beyond its blockbuster drug Keytruda, including a multibillion-dollar agreement with AstraZeneca in 2017 for rights to the British drugmaker’s Lynparza medication. Merck has been especially interested in combination treatments, testing Lynparza and Keytruda together in patients with a variety of cancers.

The company hit a setback, however, with a Phase 3 trial of Lynparza and Keytruda in patients with advanced prostate cancer. In March, Merck said the combination didn’t appear to meaningfully extend patients’ lives or slow tumor growth, yet was associated with more side effects than a hormone therapy.

Orion’s drug represents a different way of attacking prostate cancer. The oral, non-steroidal drug targets an enzyme known as CYP11A1 to suppress production of steroid hormones that can help spur tumor growth. Merck’s research chief, Dean Li, called it a “compelling approach” in a statement on the deal. 

Merck and Orion didn’t disclose financial details beyond the initial upfront payment. If the exclusive rights option is exercised, it would represent “a substantial opportunity” for Orion, according to the companies’ statement.

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