MSD has announced a worldwide research collaboration and license agreement with Taiho Pharmaceutical and Astex Pharmaceuticals, both subsidiaries of Otsuka, in order to develop small molecule inhibitors against several drug targets.

The companies revealed that the partnership intends to investigate drugs including the KRAS oncogene, which are currently being investigated for the treatment of cancer. KRAS is among the most frequently mutated oncogenes in cancer, estimated to occur in more than 90% of pancreatic cancers and approximately 20% of non-small cell lung cancers (NSCLC).

The companies have revealed that under the terms of the agreement, they will “combine preclinical candidates and their data with knowledge and expertise from their respective research programs.”

Further, in exchange for providing MSD an exclusive global license to their small molecule inhibitor candidates, Taiho and Astex will get an upfront payment of $50 million and will be eligible for $2.5 billion more, dependant on achievement of preclinical, clinical, regulatory and sales milestones.

MSD is set to fund research and development, as well as being responsible for commercialisation of products globally, although Taiho has retained co-commercialisation rights in Japan and an option to promote in specific areas of South East Asia.

The agreement “combines our respective small molecule assets and industry-leading expertise in cancer cell signaling to enable development of the most promising drug candidates” said Dr Roger Perlmutter, president, MSD Research Laboratories.

KRAS therapies had their break-out moment in 2019, with Amgen’s KRAS inhibitor becoming the first drug of its type to post clinical data last September, demonstrating that it shrank tumors in 90% of lung cancer patients.