Merck is investing $125 million in Moderna under a new deal that expands the firms’ 2016 partnership to develop messenger RNA cancer vaccines.

The deal now includes shared antigen mRNA cancer vaccines including mRNA-5671, Moderna’s mRNA KRAS cancer vaccine, the firms noted.

The two companies will now jointly advance mRNA-5671 in human studies, and combination studies with additional immuno-oncology therapies are also in the pipeline.

Merck will be responsible for clinical development of mRNA-5671 and associated costs while Moderna will be responsible for clinical supply and linked costs.

On completion of human proof-of-concept studies, Merck may opt-in on further development and commercialisation of the vaccine on payment of an undisclosed fee to Moderna.

“Augmentation of immune responses offers great promise in cancer therapy, as our work with the PD-1-specific antibody Keytruda has shown,” said Dr Roger M. Perlmutter, president, Merck Research Laboratories.  “We now look forward to expanding our exploration of mRNA cancer vaccines, working in concert with our colleagues at Moderna.”

Keynote-407 hits target

Merck announced separately that the pivotal Phase III KEYNOTE-407 trial investigating Keytruda (pembrolizumab) in combination with carboplatin-paclitaxel or nab-paclitaxel as first-line treatment for metastatic squamous non-small cell lung cancer (sNSCLC) met a pre-specified secondary endpoint of overall response rate (ORR) in an early cohort of participants at an interim analysis.

Based on these data, Merck said it has recently submitted a supplemental Biologics License Application (sBLA) to US regulators.