Merck has signed a global research collaboration and license agreement with Synthekine to discover, develop, and commercialise novel cytokine therapeutics leveraging the latter’s surrogate cytokine agonist platform.

As part of the deal, the US-based engineered cytokine therapeutics firm Synthekine will be responsible for initial research activities in partnership with Merck.

Also, Merck will gain exclusive rights to develop, manufacture and commercialise surrogate cytokine agonists for a maximum of two cytokine targets.

According to Synthekine, cytokines are small proteins that enable immune cells to communicate and are central to the body’s response to diseases and to the maintenance of immune homeostasis.

The partnership will initially focus on a target that can treat autoimmune diseases.

Under the agreement, the drug firm will make an upfront payment as well as make an additional one-time payment if the drug company selects a second target.

For each target, Synthekine will receive up to $525m in development, regulatory and commercialisation milestones, along with tiered royalties on net sales.

Additionally, Merck will offer research financing to Synthekine for programmes.

Synthekine CEO Debanjan Ray said: “At Synthekine, we are focused on advancing cytokine science through three protein engineering platforms to create optimised therapeutics in this important space.

“Our surrogate cytokine agonist platform produces a new class of cytokine therapeutics that are designed to deliver selective immunotherapies for the treatment of autoimmune diseases and cancer.

“We are thrilled to announce our first collaboration using this platform with an unequivocal leader in the field.”

Merck Research Laboratories president Dr. Dean Y. Li said: “Emerging insights from immunology and oncology are providing new and different ways to think about treating diseases.

“We look forward to collaborating with Synthekine to evaluate new approaches to harness the therapeutic potential of cytokines.”