Merck KGaA looks to double productivity in drug output, increase reliance on partnerships

GERMANY — Merck KGaA intends to double its research and development (R&D) productivity in order to launch one new drug or major indication every 18 months.

During a recent R&D update, the drugmaker stated that it intends to expand its existing efforts in oncology, neurology, and immunology.

The company expects more than 50% of future launches to result from external co-development partnerships and strategic in-licensing of assets for further in-house development.

Merck KGaA intends to devote more resources to antibody-drug conjugates, a type of targeted cancer therapy, and drugs that can degrade proteins.

Pharmaceutical companies have renewed their interest in antibody-drug conjugates following the success of medicines such as AstraZeneca and Daiichi Sankyo’s breast cancer treatment Enhertu,

The company will also build on its established expertise in the underlying biology of its focused therapeutic areas of oncology, neurology, and immunology and will leverage technological capabilities to increase R&D productivity.

The company’s oncology research and development strategy center on cancer DNA while building on existing leadership in key cancer types, including head and neck, urothelial and colorectal cancers.

The lead asset in the oncology pipeline is xevinapant, an investigational first-in-class potent oral small molecule IAP (Inhibitor of Apoptosis Protein) inhibitor being evaluated in the curative setting of locally advanced squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck.

In neurology and immunology, Merck aims to expand its Multiple Sclerosis (MS) portfolio with evobrutinib, an investigational, oral, CNS-penetrating, highly selective inhibitor of Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (BTK) with the potential to become a best-in-class treatment option for relapsing multiple sclerosis (RMS).

Merck also seeks to expand in neurology by evaluating the potential of oral cladribine in neurological diseases where inflammation is a primary driver, such as generalized myasthenia gravis.

Further, the company is looking to diversify the pipeline with immunology and accelerate R&D by focusing on targets with proven biology via novel modalities.

Building on expertise in neurology, the company is initiating a proof-of-concept study in neuromuscular conditions dermatomyositis and polymyositis with enpatoran in 2023.

Merck KGaA sells several blockbuster medicines, including the cancer treatment Erbitux, the immunotherapy Bavencio, and the multiple sclerosis drug Rebif.

However, pharmaceutical sales accounted for only about a third of its revenue in the third quarter, with the remainder coming from contract services and electronics.

There are nearly a dozen experimental antibody drug conjugates in its pipeline, two of which have advanced to human testing.

The company is developing new technology for the tumor-killing payload delivered by these drugs, as well as the linking compound that connects that payload to a targeting antibody.

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