Orna Therapeutics Secures Multi-Billion RNA Deal With Merck After $221 Million Series B

by Joy Lin
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Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Orna Therapeutics has announced a collaboration worth $3.65 billion with Merck (known as MSD outside the US and Canada) that will see the companies generate multiple programs using Orna’s circular RNA technology. The programs may include vaccines and therapeutics in the areas of infectious disease and oncology. 

Orna also said that it has raised $221 million in Series B funding with participation from founding investors MPM Capital and BioImpact Capital, an affiliate of MPM, and Merck, which invested $100 million as a new investor. 

Related article: Gilead Forking Over $280 million to Everest to Regain Rights to Breast Cancer Treatment

A $3.65 Billion Bet On Circular RNA

Under the terms of the deal, Merck will pay Orna $150 million upfront and has promised up to $3.5 billion in developmental, regulatory and commercial milestones as well as royalties on product sales. 

Orna will retain rights on its oRNA-LNP platform and will continue to pursue independent programs in oncology and genetic disease.

There is emerging evidence that circular RNAs play important regulatory roles in many cell processes. One of the most well-known functions of this RNA form is microRNA (miRNA) sponging, where the circular RNA binds to miRNA, preventing the miRNA from binding to their target mRNA. Dysregulation of circular RNA may hence cause various diseases. 

The company’s circular RNA (termed “oRNA”) technology creates linear RNAs that self-circularize. oRNAs are typically more stable than linear mRNA, and could potentially be used to produce larger quantities of therapeutic proteins in the body. Their circular shape could also be packaged more compactly into lipid nanoparticles (LNP) engineered to target specific tissues. These LNPs come from Orna’s partnership with ReNAgade Therapeutics, an RNA delivery company also created by MPM and BioImpact Capital. 

“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.”

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