Merck Serono, the biopharmaceutical arm of German drugs giant Merck KGaA, is shelling out more than $941 million in a development and licensing deal with Intrexon aiming to create the next generation of CAR-T based cancer immunotherapies.

The agreement gives Merck exclusive access to Intrexon’s suite of technologies able to create CAR-T cells - genetically engineered T-cells that hone in on a specific tumour antigen to trigger an immunological attack against cancerous cells.

In return, Intrexon will receive an upfront payment of $115 million and, for the first two targets of interest selected by Merck, stands to receive research funding and up to $826 million in development, regulatory and commercial milestones, as well as tiered royalties on product sales. Intrexon is also eligible to receive further payments for certain technology development milestones.

The US biotech takes responsibility for all platform and product developments until IND filing, while Merck will lead the IND filing and pre-IND interactions, clinical development and commercialisation for any candidates of interest. 

The deal marks the latest in fast-growing line of cancer immunotherapy pacts striving to harness to the power of the body’s own immune system to fight the disease. In November last year, Pfizer bought itself access to Merck’s own early-stage anti-PD-L1 inhibitor candidate MSB0010718C for $850 million upfront plus milestones, while Novartis has just sealed a $250-million-plus deal CAR-T deal with Aduro.