Merck and Moderna Therapeutics have linked under a strategic collaboration and license agreement to develop and commercialise cancer vaccines based on novel messenger RNA.

The collaboration plans to utilise Moderna's pioneering mRNA vaccine technology and manufacturing capabilities and Merck's presence in immuno-oncology to advance individually tailored cancer vaccines for patients across a range of cancers.

The aim is to encode a patient's specific neoantigens - unique mutations present in that specific patient's tumour, forming the basis of a vaccine designed to elicit a specific immune response that will recognise and destroy cancer cells.

The partners believe that the mRNA-based personalised cancer vaccines' ability to specifically activate an individual patient's immune system could be synergistic with checkpoint inhibitor therapies, such as Merck's own anti-PD-1 therapy, Keytruda (pembrolizumab), potentially boosting treatment outcomes.

"Combining immunotherapy with vaccine technology may be a new path toward improving outcomes for patients," noted Roger Perlmutter, president, Merck Research Laboratories. "While the area of personalised cancer vaccine research has faced challenges in the past, there have been many recent advances, and we believe that working with Moderna to combine an immuno-oncology approach, using Keytruda, with mRNA-based personalised cancer vaccines may have the potential to transform the treatment of cancer."

Under the deal, Merck will pay Moderna $200 million in cash upfront, which will be used to fuel all research and development efforts through proof of concept, as well as ready a GMP manufacturing facility for personalised cancer vaccine manufacturing.

Merck can choose to make an additional undisclosed payment to Moderna following proof of concept studies and, if it does so, the partners will then equally share cost/profits under a global collaboration for the development of personalised cancer vaccines.