Merck and Orna Therapeutics team up to advance next generation RNA tech

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

Orna’s proprietary oRNA technology creates circular RNAs (oRNAs). Pic:getty/richarddrury
Orna’s proprietary oRNA technology creates circular RNAs (oRNAs). Pic:getty/richarddrury

Related tags Merck Rna Oncology Infectious disease

Merck and Orna Therapeutics have announced a collaboration agreement to discover, develop and commercialize Orna’s next generation oRNA technology across multiple programs, including vaccines and therapeutics in infectious disease and oncology.

Founded in 2019, Orna is devoted to designing and delivering fully engineered circular RNA (oRNA) therapeutics, which have been shown to have greater stability in vivo than linear mRNA with the potential to produce larger quantities of therapeutic proteins inside the body. Newly synthesized oRNA molecules can also be more compactly packaged into custom lipid nanoparticles (LNPs).

Merck, known as MSD outside the US and Canada, will make an upfront payment to Cambridge, Massachusetts headquartered Orna of $150m, with Orna eligible to receive up to $3.5bn in milestone payments, as well as royalties on any approved products resulting from the collaboration.

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. Merck will also invest $100m of equity in Orna’s recently completed Series B financing round.

Orna describes its oRNA ​tech as ‘the next revolution’ in RNA therapeutics. oRNA molecules are engineered as linear RNAs that undergo highly-efficient autocatalytic circularization. By taking a line and turning it into a circle, the company’s oRNA technology has numerous advantages over traditional linear mRNA therapies such as simplified production, increased protein expression, and immunoquiescence, according to the company.

“oRNA molecules, due to their unique design, are able to produce more therapeutic protein inside the body than conventional mRNA, with the potential to engineer cells, replace damaged proteins, or add new beneficial proteins for patients with serious diseases,”​ says the company.

Preclinical data, including presentations at the 2022 American Society of Gene & Cell Therapy (ASGCT) Annual Meeting, have demonstrated the potential of oRNA expression and delivery as an approach for further development in multiple areas, including vaccines and oncology therapeutics.

“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,”​ said Fiona Marshall, senior vice president and head of discovery, preclinical and translational medicine at Merck Research Laboratories. “We look forward to working with the talented scientific and technical teams at Orna."

“We are thrilled to collaborate with Merck, a company committed to breakthrough science, which has recognized the potential our platform can bring to patients. Our oRNA technology plus novel delivery solutions are designed to unlock the full potential of RNA in therapeutics and vaccines,”​ said Tom Barnes, Chief Executive Officer of Orna. “The combined expertise of Orna and Merck aims to accelerate the development of RNA therapeutics for patients in need of better treatment options.”

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