Home Interviews Aqilion and Merck sever ties

Aqilion and Merck sever ties

Aqilion and Merck end collaboration

Aqilion and Merck sever ties

27 June, 2024

Aqilion announced the termination of the licensing and collaboration agreement with Merck for the joint development of the TAK1 programme taking aim at chronic inflammation. The decision follows data generated during the partnership, which indicated a shift in the risk-benefit profile for the targeted indications. BioStock reached out to Aqilion’s CEO Sarah Fredriksson for a comment.

In early 2023, Merck placed a EUR 10 million bet on Aqilion – a private biotech based in Helsingborg – to take on autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. The agreement included a commitment of EUR 950 million in milestones for preclinical inhibitors of the transforming growth factor-β-activated kinase 1 (TAK1) protein.

The interest in the TAK1 protein is fueled by the poor efficacy of current anti-inflammatory treatments, which are focused on targeting the abberant tumor necrosis factor (TNF) signalling pathway – a hallmark of chronic inflammation. Antibodies like Remicade (infliximab) have improved outcomes in many autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, but some patients either never respond or relapse after initially responding.

TAK1 offers a potential alternative route to disrupt TNF, and Aqilion’s preclinical work with their TAK1 inhibitors has shown great potential in overcoming the current treatment challenges.

A biotech success story

The Merck deal was widely viewed as a success story in the realm of pharma partnerships, and Aqilion’s CEO Sarah Fredriksson talked about the importance of the collaboration in a BioStock interview:

– This deal inspires us as a team, and it will strengthen our financial ability to continue to develop interesting drug discovery project and strengthen our pipeline. Three years ago, we made an active decision to make Aqilion a biotech company and develop our own drug discovery programmes within chronic inflammation, and one could say that this deal actually validates that decision today.

Rough skies for the Helsingborg Eagle

Last week, however, Aqilion announced the termination of the agreement with Merck. According to the biotech, “the data generated during the collaboration have altered the risk-benefit profile within the intended indications.”

Aqilion will oversee the transfer of all relevant data and materials and conduct an internal review to determine the future of the TAK1 programme. The company will explore further development possibilities within the inflammation sector or other therapeutic areas.

– The license and collaboration agreement with Merck validated our strategy of producing high-quality and innovative discovery projects. While it is disappointing, such challenges are not uncommon in early drug development phases. We will now reallocate our resources to our existing pipeline projects, excluding the TAK1 programme, stated Sarah Fredriksson.

The road ahead for Aqilion

Currently, Aqilion has four ongoing pipeline projects. The lead programme involves a selective inhibitor of janus kinase 1 (JAK1), AQ280. In August of last year, Aqilion began a phase I clinical trial with AQ280 as treatment for eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE), an inflammatory condition affecting the esophagus. Positive results from the study were announced shortly thereafter.

Then, in May this year, Aqilion announced a new drug discovery programme with PKCtheta as the target. Aqilion’s CEO Sarah Fredriksson shared more details about the programme in this BioStock interview.

So, the Helsingborg biotech has a diverse pipeline with potential to make a significant impact on patients suffering from chronic inflammatory diseases.

CEO insights

BioStock got in touch with Sarah Fredriksson to learn more about the terminated collaboration with Merck, and what is in store for the company moving forward.

Sarah, could you expand on the reasoning for termination of the agreement with Merck?

– During the development we have repeatedly seen really promising efficacy data in disease models but we we have also met challenges that alters the risk/benefit profile of the programme. Given these new findings in combination with the intended indications and strategic considerations both parties have decided to end the collaborative development.

How big of a blow is this to Aqilion?

– It is of course unfortunate and we are disappointed since we have been truly excited given how promising the TAK1 biology was in our early discovery efforts. We are still proud of the deal we made with Merck and to us it proved that it is worthwile to continue to go for early innovative discovery projects that are well recognised by big pharma. It was an early deal with a substansial upfront and a stimulating partnership. We will of course analyse if we could have done things differently in order to de-risk already in discovery phase, however most likely this is simply the nature of many early drug discovery projects.

Sarah Fredriksson, vd, Aqilion
Sarah Fredriksson, CEO Aqilion

What comes next for the TAK1 programme?

– First we will make sure to transfer material and data back to Aqilion. Then we will analyse other options for the programme and evaluate whether or not there is a feasible path moving forward. For now, we will focus our resources primarily in our other pipeline programmes.

What will Aqilion have to do to adjust its financing and business development strategy?

– Our business development strategy remains the same. We are deal driven. To actively search for potential partners in order to secure or verify a substantial interest in our programmes is a one of our key strategic cornerstones. The financing of the phase II clinical trial in EoE is prioritized and we never planned to use any upcoming milestones payment for that purpose. Of course, owners and potential investors probably are as disappointed as we are. Still we believe that we have three exciting programmes within chronic inflammation and autoimmune disease, from early discovery to clinical development, and will continue working with our next financing round based on our pipeline and track record.

Overall, how does this affect Aqilion’s other programmes, if at all?

– All our pipeline programme are independent of each other. With individual IP and development plans they are not directly affected by the events within the TAK1 programme.

Finally, what milestones are you most looking forward to in the coming months?

– We are looking forward to be able to present new promising data in the AQ312 and to follow up business development leads for all our assets. The next milestone for the AQ280 programme is a pre-IND meeting and to finalize the API production and drug formulation in order to file an IND application in the end of this year.

The content of BioStock’s news and analyses is independent but the work of BioStock is to a certain degree financed by life science companies. The above article concerns a company from which BioStock has received financing.

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