Merck Strikes $1B+ Deal to Leverage Janux's T Cell Engager Program Against Cancer

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San Diego-based Janux Therapeutics forged a strategic collaboration with pharma giant Merck potentially worth more than $1 billion to develop next-generation T cell engager immunotherapies for the treatment of cancer.

Merck will select cancer targets and harness Janux’s proprietary Tumor Activated T Cell Engager (TRACTr) technology to engineer novel, T cell engager drug candidates. T cell engagers are an emerging class of immunotherapies that bind to a tumor cell and recruit a patient’s T cells to eradicate tumor cells. Previous technologies have been constrained by dose-limiting toxicities, poor pharmacokinetic profiles, and attenuated efficacy. Janux believes it has overcome these limitations with its TRACTr technology. Janux’s proprietary TRACTr technology is designed to integrate tumor-specific activation with crossover pharmacokinetics to produce best-in-class T cell engager therapeutics. In preclinical studies, Janux TRACTr drug candidates have demonstrated comparable anti-tumor efficacy relative to standard T cell engagers but lack the associated liabilities related to cytokine release, healthy tissue toxicities, or systemic immune activation, the company said.

“At Janux, we have developed a technology to engineer best-in-class T cell engagers that are potent and highly tumor-specific, which is essential for an immune response that kills tumor cells but spares healthy tissue,” David Campbell, president and chief executive officer of Janux Therapeutics said in a statement. “Partnering with Merck, a world leader in immuno-oncology, provides us with important expertise and resources in developing next-generation T cell engager therapies that will make immunotherapy work for more cancer patients.”

The Janux TRACTr development pipeline targets multiple solid tumor indications, including colorectal, gastroesophageal, prostrate, NSCLC, triple-negative breast, and ovarian cancers. Janux technology can be applied to immunotherapies that target all three stages of an anti-tumor immune response. Janus also said its technology can be applied to immunotherapies that target all three stages of an anti-tumor immune response.

Merck will fund research and development on the program, according to the collaboration. Under the terms of the agreement, Merck received an exclusive worldwide license to products and intellectual property developed from this collaboration. Janux, in exchange, will receive up to $500.5 million per target, the company said. It’s a big bet for Merck. Janux, which was founded in 2017, is still largely a preclinical company. It has yet to reach the stage of filing an Investigational New Drug application for its assets, according to its website.

There are other companies attempting to harness the power of T cell engagers, including Amgen and its Bispecific T cell engager (BiTE) program, as well as Maverick Therapeutics and its COBRA platform.

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