Biotech unicorn Moderna raises another $125 million in expanded Merck partnership


Moderna Therapeutics is banking an additional $125 million in an expanded partnership with Merck around a personalized cancer vaccine.

The product, called mRNA-5671, targets mutations in a gene called KRAS that Moderna says occur in about 90 percent of pancreatic cancers and 30 percent of non-small-cell lung cancers. It’s the fourth program on which the two companies are collaborating.

The $125 million from Merck comes in the form of series H preferred equity; Moderna completed a series G fundraising round earlier this year. It’s now raised more than $1.6 billion in equity and $1 billion through partnership payments, CEO Stephane Bancel said in a telephone interview Thursday.

With a private valuation of close to $7 billion at its last financing round, Moderna’s future as a private company has come into question. The Wall Street Journal reported in March, citing an unnamed source, that the biotech unicorn was considering a dual listing in the U.S. and Hong Kong.

Bancel said Thursday that’s not the plan.

“We are not planning on submitting an application to list in Hong Kong,” he said in an interview. “We have no plans to list somewhere else outside the U.S. We are a U.S.-based company; the U.S. is a logical place to list.”

Bancel declined to comment further on any plans for an initial public offering, saying only that “we are always looking at our capital needs and accessing the public markets would be among our options.”

Meanwhile, funds don’t appear to be in short supply for the biotech company, though it does have a pipeline of 19 candidates to support across infectious diseases, immuno-oncology, cardiovascular disease and rare liver diseases.

The Merck partnership comes with an additional potential payment of an undisclosed amount if Merck decides to opt in after human proof-of-concept studies.

Moderna makes drugs based on messenger RNA, essentially aiming to deliver a blueprint for cells to create specific proteins. The compound in the expanded Merck collaboration, mRNA-5671, encodes for the four most common mutations in the KRAS gene.

Though it’s called a vaccine, it’s not intended to prevent disease; rather, it’s designed to be a therapeutic vaccine, inducing the immune system to recognize and attack certain markers on cancer cells. Moderna said mRNA-5671 is designed to target most of the KRAS mutations found in non-small-cell lung cancer, colorectal cancer and pancreatic cancer, and will only be tested in patients whose tumors express one of those four mutations.

Under the agreement, the companies may also collaborate on additional cancer vaccine programs.


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