Merck has signed a strategic collaboration agreement with Skyhawk Therapeutics to use its SkySTAR technology to develop drug candidates for patients with neurodegenerative diseases and cancer.

The companies will focus on discovering, developing and commercialising small molecules that can modulate ribonucleic acid (RNA) splicing.

The partnership will employ SkySTAR to discover and develop RNA-binding of small molecules capable of selectively modifying RNA splicing. This will offer a new approach for the potential treatment of certain neurological diseases and cancer.

Skyhawk Therapeutics co-founder and CEO Bill Haney said: “Merck has a long history of commitment to challenging diseases and is relentless in its pursuit of developing new treatment options for patients.

“We look forward to demonstrating the ability of our SkySTAR technology platform to deliver novel drug candidates for the disease targets Merck has selected and advancing those compounds to address the unmet medical needs of patients.”

Merck will have the option to exclusively licence worldwide intellectual property (IP) rights to drug candidates developed through this partnership.

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The company will be required to pay $600m per programme target, including an upfront cash payment to Skyhawk. If Merck exercises the option, Skyhawk will be entitled to receive potential opt-in fees, milestone payments and royalties on sales of commercialised products.

Merck Research Laboratories discovery and translational medicine senior vice-president Dr Dean Li said: “RNA splicing modification offers a new approach to modulating targets previously considered undruggable.

“We look forward to working with the scientists at Skyhawk to explore the potential of this new modality.”

Skyhawk uses its SkySTAR platform to develop small molecule drugs to deliver breakthrough treatments for diseases.

Separately, the company has expanded the scope of its collaboration with Biogen to develop novel small molecule RNA splicing modifiers for disease targets.

Skyhawk and Biogen entered a collaboration agreement in January this year. This provided Biogen with an exclusive licence to worldwide IP rights on research-stage therapeutic candidates for the treatment of multiple sclerosis (MS), spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and other neurological disorders.

The latest agreement will extend the exclusive licence beyond the research-stage therapeutic candidates.