Merck (MSD outside North America) has entered a partnership agreement with Orna Therapeutics for discovering, developing and marketing various programmes based on next-generation RNA technology. 

These programmes will include therapies and vaccines in infectious disease and oncology areas.

By self-circularisation, Orna’s oRNA technology makes circular ribonucleic acids (oRNAs) from linear RNAs. 

oRNA molecules have been demonstrated to possess increased stability in vivo compared to linear mRNA and can potentially create more quantities of therapeutic proteins within the body. 

These molecules synthesised newly are packaged densely into custom lipid nanoparticles (LNPs), which Orna has made to act on the body’s crucial tissues. 

Preclinical data showed the potential of oRNA expression and delivery as a method for advanced development in various areas, including vaccines and oncology treatments.

According to the deal, Orna is eligible to receive an upfront payment of $150m from Merck.

Furthermore, Orna is entitled to receive development, regulatory and sales-based milestone payments totalling up to $3.5bn on advancing various vaccine and therapeutic programmes.

Merck will also make royalty payments on any approved products developed out of the partnership. 

The rights to the oRNA-LNP technology platform of Orna will be retained by the company, which will also progress various other fully owned programmes in oncology and genetic disease areas. 

In addition, Merck will make a $100m equity investment in Orna’s Series B funding round concluded recently.

Merck Research Laboratories discovery, preclinical and translational medicine senior vice-president and head Fiona Marshall said: “This broad strategic collaboration brings together Merck’s significant expertise in nucleic acid biology, clinical development, and manufacturing with Orna’s compelling circular RNA technology to explore the opportunity to develop a new generation of potential vaccines and therapeutics. 

“We look forward to working with the talented scientific and technical teams at Orna.”

The latest development comes after the company and Cerevance signed a multi-year strategic research collaboration to discover new targets for Alzheimer’s disease.

Cell & Gene Therapy coverage on Pharmaceutical Technology is supported by Cytiva.

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