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Merck signs next-gen RNA collab with Orna Therapeutics

Merck (MSD) and biotech startup Orna Therapeutics unveiled a collaboration agreement to discover, develop and commercialize multiple programs, including vaccines and therapeutics for infectious diseases and oncology, using Orna’s proprietary oRNA technology.

Merck will make an upfront payment of $150 million. In addition, Massachusetts-based Orna will be eligible to receive up to $3.5 billion in milestones associated with the progress of the multiple vaccine and therapeutic programs, as well as royalties on any approved products derived from the collaboration.

Per the deal, 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. The company’s proprietary oRNA technology creates circular RNAs from linear RNAs by self-circularization. According to Orna, oRNA molecules have been shown to have greater stability in vivo than traditional linear mRNA and have the potential to produce larger quantities of therapeutic proteins inside the body. Newly synthesized oRNA molecules are more compactly packaged into custom lipid nanoparticles, which Orna has engineered to target key tissues in the body.

At the same time, Orna announced the initial closing of its $221 million Series B financing, featuring Merck as a new investor. Merck will also invest $100 million of equity alongside commitments from founding investors MPM Capital and BioImpact Capital.