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Paying the toll for vaccines
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Idera Pharmaceuticals' Toll-like Receptor (TLR) agonists could be seeing some major commercial exposure following a recent collaboration deal between the company and Merck & Co. AS part of the deal, the companies will research, develop and commercialize the TLR agonists by incorporating them in therapeutic and prophylactic vaccines being developed by Merck for oncology, infectious diseases and Alzheimer's disease.
Under the terms of the agreement, Merck will receive worldwide exclusive rights to a number of Idera's agonist compounds targeting TLR 7, 8 and 9 for use in combination with Merck's vaccines. In addition, Merck and Idera will engage in a two-year research and development collaboration to generate novel agonists targeting TLR 7 and TLR 8 and incorporating both Merck and Idera chemistry for use in the licensed fields.
Idera already has a substantial portfolio of TLR 9-related compounds that it is exploring, according to Sudhir Agrawal, Idera's CEO, which is why the research and development aspect of the deal focuses just on TLR 7 and TLR 8. Idera has two compounds in clinical trials now—IMO-2055 for oncology and Amplivax for prevention and treatment of HIV. The company has also done preclinical work on compounds showing activity in oncology treatment combinations (chemotherapy, monoclonal antibodies, radiation), infectious disease and vaccine adjuvants, as well as a trials for asthma and allergy in partnership with Novartis.
"The deal with Merck is incredibly important to help us further develop our internal pipeline," notes Bob Karr, Idera's president. "But it is important to note that it covers only the use of TLRs for vaccines related to oncology, infectious disease and Alzheimer's. The potential for TLRs is much more broad, going beyond just vaccines, and we retain all rights for those other programs and areas."
Merck has agreed to pay an upfront license fee of $20 million to Idera and to purchase $10 million of its common stock at $5.50 per share. In addition, Merck will fund the research and development collaboration. Idera is eligible to receive milestone payments of up to $165 million if vaccines are successfully developed in each of the three fields. Additional milestones of up to $260 million would be payable for follow-on indications in the oncology field and the successful development of additional vaccines containing Idera's TLR agonists.
"TLRs are critical mediators of the human immune response. We believe a chemistry-based approach may be an efficient way to harness the activity of TLRs to train the immune system to recognize antigens, thereby potentially enhancing the effect of vaccines," says Dr. Stephen H. Friend, executive vice president of Advanced Technologies and Oncology at Merck. "[Idera has] established a robust TLR-based discovery platform that is synergistic with our internal chemistry programs and has yielded an extensive portfolio of TLR agonist compounds that can be applied across our multiple areas of interest for new vaccine development." According to Idera, TLRs function in human immune cells as the sensors of pathogens. They recognize different microbial products present in pathogens such as bacteria, viruses and parasites, and mount an appropriate immune response against the foreign invaders. TLRs have become attractive targets for developing immune modulators to treat a number of diseases, including cancer, asthma, allergies, and infectious diseases.