Cambridge, UK-based F-star has signed a new collaboration with Merck under which the drug giant has the option to develop and commercialise five of its bispecific immuno-oncology antibodies.

The deal covers F-star's preclinical lead asset FS118, which is designed to block LAG-3 (Lymphocyte-Activation Gene 3) and PD-L1 (Programmed Death-Ligand 1), two pathways commonly used by cancer cells to evade the immune system.

F-star says a preclinical model indicates that FS118 could boost efficacy compared to monotherapy combinations, which supports the potential to initiate a clinical development programme.

The other bispecific antibodies included in the deal all target specific pathways to augment the anti-tumour immune response.

Merck will pay up to 115 million euros in upfront, R&D funding and milestone payments in the first two years, and will make further payments upon exercising its option and based on milestones, with the potential deal value reaching over 1 billion euros.

"This immuno-oncology collaboration expands our strong relationship with Merck and is a further validation of the potential of F-star's bispecific antibody platform. Our vision is to transform the treatment of cancer. This is the objective of partnering our lead asset FS118 and other next-generation immuno-oncology compounds with Merck,” said F-star’s chief executive John Haurum.