Merck KGaA has linked up with Bristol University spin-off Apitope to develop a new treatment for multiple sclerosis.

The German firm’s Merck Serono unit has been granted exclusive worldwide rights by Apitope, which is now headquartered in Belgium, to ATX-MS-1467. The drug is a novel peptide-based therapeutic which has completed an initial clinical study in patients with MS.

Under the terms of the agreement, Apitope is eligible to receive up to 154 million euros in upfront, development and commercialisation milestone payments, plus royalties. The Hasselt-based group will initially be responsible for the further development of ATX-MS-1467, for which Merck Serono will fund the costs, and the Switzerland-based unit will take over at the beginning of Phase II trials. It will also provide “committed funding” to Apitope for research on other therapeutic peptides for MS.

Bernhard Kirschbaum, executive vice president of R&D, said that ATX-MS-1467 represents “a novel, targeted approach and may have the potential to complement existing MS drugs by offering a novel mode of action”. He added that “by applying our existing stratified medicine approaches, we will also identify those MS patients who should benefit most from this potential treatment”.

ATX-MS-1467 consists of four short peptides that are derived from myelin basic protein, a key autoantigen in MS, the firms said. It is specifically designed to target up to 70% of patients with the disease who have a specific genetic profile.

Merck Serono is already a major player in the MS field through its blockbuster Rebif (interferon beta-1a). The firm is also conducting Phase III trials of cladribine, which potentially could be the first oral therapy for the disease.