Merck to help Orna Therapeutics advance ‘circular RNA’ technology

The U.S. pharmaceutical giant and Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s (BIO) member Merck announced on Tuesday its collaboration agreement with the biotech startup Orna Therapeutics, which is “pioneering a new investigational class of engineered circular RNA (oRNA) therapies.”

The agreement envisages both companies to “discover, develop, and commercialize multiple programs, including vaccines and therapeutics in the areas of infectious disease and oncology.”

“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,” said Fiona Marshall, senior VP, and head of discovery, preclinical and translational medicine at Merck Research Laboratories.

She underscored her hope that it’ll result in developing “a new generation of potential vaccines and therapeutics.”

In line with the deal, Merck will pay Orna $150 million upfront and the biotech company “will be eligible to up to $3.5 billion in development, regulatory, and sales milestones” stemming from the progress of multiple vaccine and therapeutic programs, as well as “royalties on any approved products” derived from the deal.

Orna’s Chief Executive Officer Tom Barnes pointed out that “the combined expertise of Orna and Merck aims to accelerate the development of RNA therapeutics for patients in need of better treatment options.”

As per the agreement, “Orna will retain rights to its oRNA-LNP technology platform and will continue to advance other wholly owned programs in areas such as oncology and genetic disease.”

At the same time, the company announced that Merck will invest another $100 million of equity in its recently completed $221 million Series B round financing as a new investor.

Circular RNA therapeutics

As the release explains, “Orna’s proprietary oRNA technology creates circular RNAs (oRNAs) from linear RNAs by self-circularization.” This results in newly synthesized oRNA molecules with “greater stability in vivo than linear mRNA” and “potential to produce larger quantities of therapeutic proteins inside the body.”

They’re also “more compactly packaged into custom lipid nanoparticles (LNPs), which Orna has engineered to target key tissues in the body.”

Barnes noted that “in under three years, Orna has taken proprietary circular RNA from academic literature to the first proof of concept data in preclinical models.” The company recently presented “preclinical data demonstrating the potential of oRNA to treat cancer, genetic disorders, and infectious diseases.”

Orna’s release also says that its “lead isCAR program demonstrated tumor suppression and eradication in animal models, indicating significant potential that oRNA-based cancer therapies could be superior to traditional cell therapies.”

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