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Merck opts in for Dragonfly's TriNKET cancer immunotherapy program

The U.S. Big Pharma is getting its hands on its first TriNKET immunotherapy candidate from the biotech, which comes after the pair expanded their original collab earlier this year with a multi-target deal to develop and sell natural killer (NK) cell engager immunotherapies in oncology, infectious disease and immune disorders.

Merck first paired up with the biotech in a deal worth nearly $700 million per target two years ago, with a focus on a series of solid tumor targets.

This also comes around three months after Bristol Myers Squibb/Celgene paid nearly half a billion dollars in near-term and upfronts to license Dragonfly’s interleukin-12 immunotherapy program.

Dragonfly’s tech is based on its TriNKET, or Tri-specific, NK cell Engager Therapeutics, which bind to surface proteins expressed on both cancer cells and NK cells.

This alerts the NK cells to the cancer; they then directly attack the tumor while also recruiting other immune cells to join in. T cells, the basis of many current immuno-oncology approaches, directly attack the tumor, while B cells produce antibodies to help the fight against the cancer.

Merck is tapping the biotech to help carve out future cancer drugs, making bets in the hope of hitting the heights seen with its major blockbuster Keytruda.

“Merck is a powerful world leader in drug development across a wide number of therapeutic areas and continues to be a strong scientific collaborator,” said Bill Haney, co-founder and CEO of Dragonfly Therapeutics.

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

They both kept mum on any financials from the deal, saying simply in a statement: “Dragonfly has received an undisclosed payment associated with this milestone.”

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