Merck and Dragonfly, Together Again



This morning, investors in privately-held Dragonfly Therapeutics are thankful after Merck opted to license its second TriNKET immunotherapy candidate from the Waltham, Mass.-based company. The option came one year after the pharma giant licensed its first immunotherapy candidate.


Bill Haney, co-founder and chief executive officer of Dragonfly, shared his excitement about Merck’s decision to license the second immunotherapy asset. Haney touted Merck’s drug development prowess and noted that the company is a “strong scientific collaborator.”


“We are delighted that Merck has now exercised its option for this second immunotherapy candidate from our initial collaboration, and excited by the progress we are making together on bringing Dragonfly’s TriNKET technology to targets across a broader set of diseases,” Haney said in a statement.


Dragonfly’s TriNKET (Tri-specific, NK cell Engager Therapies) bind to the proteins expressed on cancer cells and NK cells. According to the company, the TriNKET system provides “an active connection between cancer cells, and cells of the immune system including NK cells themselves, T cells, B cells, and other cells that help attack and kill cancer.” NK cells are part of the natural immune system. Dragonfly said its TriNKET system stimulates NK cells, which makes them aware of cancerous cells and signals the NK cells to kill the cancer cells and notify other immune cells to attack the tumor.


Merck and Dragonfly first partnered in 2018. Merck struck a deal valued at $695 million to license Dragonfly’s TriNKET technology platform for several solid-tumor programs. At the time the deal was struck, Merck expressed excitement about the potential of harnessing NK cells to fight cancer. The partnership has gone so well that last year, the two companies expanded the collaboration with a multi-target agreement to develop additional NK cell engager immunotherapies in oncology, infectious disease, and immune disorders.


When Merck exercised its option, Dragonfly received an undisclosed milestone payment.


Dragonfly is certainly no stranger to working with larger pharmaceutical companies. In addition to Merck, the company has partnered with Bristol Myers Squibb and AbbVie.


In 2017, Dragonfly struck a five-year agreement with Celgene to develop immuno-oncology therapeutics for hematological cancers based on Dragonfly’s TriNKET technology platform. That agreement transferred to BMS after it acquired Celgene and the fruits of that partnership are continuing for both companies. Last month, BMS licensed its sixth asset from Dragonfly, and the pharma giant initiated Phase I trials with both the CC-96191 and CC-92328 investigational immunotherapies it gained from the licensing deal. Since their original 2017 collaboration focusing on hematology malignancies, Dragonfly and BMS have agreed to two additional collaborations, including oncology and neuroinflammation targets. Last year, BMS licensed Dragonfly’s interleukin-12 (IL-12) investigational immunotherapy program, including its extended half-life cytokine DF6002. These are seen as potential treatments for solid and hematological cancers.


In 2019, AbbVie and Dragonfly teamed up to tackle autoimmune and oncology indications. Dragonfly’s novel NK cell engager-based immunotherapies are at the center of that partnership.