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Merck, Biopharma Partner on Cell-Free Immune System Therapies

Cancer magnified

(PDPics, Pixabay)

24 July 2018. Global drug maker Merck is acquiring the rights to therapies for cancer and autoimmune disorders based on a technology for developing synthetic proteins from a process that bypasses live cells. The collaboration with Merck could bring biopharmaceuticals developer Sutro Biopharma Inc. in South San Francisco, California nearly $1.7 billion if all parts of the agreement are achieved.

Sutro Biopharma discovers and designs synthetic biological therapies that regulate immune system functions, particularly for cancer and autoimmune diseases, where the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy calls and tissue. Type 1 diabetes, lupus, and multiple sclerosis are examples of autoimmune disorders. The company’s technology develops drugs similar to proteins, with a biochemical process also comparable to that for proteins.

But the company says its technology develops these synthetic molecules without existing cell lines, such as bacteria or yeast, which require intact and functioning cells. Instead, says Sutro, its process uses an extract from cells with only the critical components needed to produce proteins, which the company claims reduces the time needed to produce biologic drugs from months to weeks.

Most of the products in Sutro’s current pipeline act something like antibodies in the immune system, but add on important features to fight various cancers. The company develops antibody-drug conjugates that combine an antibody with an active drug compound, using the antibody’s targeting capabilities to deliver the drug to diseased cells. Sutro says its process can incorporate non-natural amino acids to any site in the antibody, which the company says can be accomplished quickly.

Sutro also designs bi-specific antibodies that make it possible to combine, for example, binding and tumor-fighting capabilities in one antibody. A similar technology enables development of antibodies that bind to two separate sites on an antigen, the target of antibodies, to more efficiently deliver cancer-fighting drug payloads to tumor sites, while avoiding healthy tissue.

The agreement with Merck applies to Sutro’s work with derivatives from cytokines, key molecules in proteins and peptides that can alter or regulate the immune system. Merck and Sutro staff will collaborate on discovering immune-regulating cytokine derivatives for cancer and autoimmune diseases, although precise disorders were not disclosed. Under the deal, Sutro is responsible for preclinical research and development, while Merck gains exclusive worldwide rights to all treatment candidates developed from the collaboration. The agreement gives Sutro an immediate payment of $60 million, with the company eligible for future development and marketing milestone payments of up to $1.6 billion. Sutro is also eligible for royalties on sales of products from the partnership.

The announcement of the deal makes no mention of Sutro’s cell-free manufacturing facilities for synthetic proteins. The company says its facilities in San Carlos, California meet current Good Manufacturing Practices, the pharma industry’s production standards. Sutro says it plans to use these facilities to support its first clinical trials expected later in 2018.

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