Pharmaceutical giant Merck announced Tuesday that it will acquire Caraway Therapeutics, a preclinical biotech company pursuing novel approaches to treating genetically defined neurodegenerative and rare diseases. The deal reflects Merck’s ongoing commitment to developing much-needed disease-modifying therapies for progressive brain conditions.
Under the agreement, Merck will make an upfront payment to obtain Caraway, followed by additional milestone payments contingent upon the progress of certain Caraway pipeline assets. Though financial terms were not disclosed, the total potential consideration could reach up to $610 million.
“Caraway’s multidisciplinary approach has yielded important progress in evaluating novel mechanisms of modulation of lysosomal function with potential for the treatment of progressive neurodegenerative diseases,” said George Addona, Merck’s head of discovery. “We look forward to applying our expertise to build upon this work with the goal of developing much needed disease-modifying therapies for these conditions.”
Unlike symptomatic treatments, disease-modifying therapies aim to directly impact underlying disease processes and ultimately alter the course of a condition’s progression. This has remained an elusive goal for brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Caraway’s work targets dysfunctions in cellular “recycling” processes that clear toxic materials from the brain. Its treatments stimulate lysosomes, which act as cell disposal units, to boost their activity. Researchers believe a boost in waste clearance could counter neurodegeneration.
Merck has been an investor in Caraway since 2018 through its venture capital arm MRL Ventures Fund. Now, by folding Caraway’s team and portfolio into its research labs, Merck aims to leverage its considerable drug development capabilities to advance lysosomal modulation treatments for neurodegeneration.
“This is a testament to the hard work and dedication of the Caraway team and our mission to develop therapeutics with the potential to alter the progression of devastating neurodegenerative diseases and help patients,” said Caraway CEO Martin D. Williams in a statement. “This acquisition leverages Merck’s industry-leading research and development capabilities to help further advance our discovery and preclinical programs.”
Alongside Merck, Caraway has been backed by several high-profile life sciences investors including SV Health Investors, AbbVie Ventures, Amgen Ventures, and Eisai Innovation.
An Urgent Need for Better Brain Treatments
Currently available medications can only manage symptoms for a period of time for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and related neurodegenerative diseases. None treat underlying pathologies or substantially slow worsening cognition and functionality.
Alzheimer’s alone impacts more than 6 million Americans and the prevalence is expected to triple in the next 30 years if no new treatments emerge. Experts have emphasized the urgent need for innovations.
Major players in the pharmaceutical industry have confronted disappointed late-stage clinical trial results among proposed Alzheimer’s treatments over the past decade, suffering high-profile setbacks.
Yet Merck’s buy-in suggests promise still exists in Caraway’s early-stage lysosomal modulation approach, even though treatments haven’t advanced to human testing yet. Merck aims to apply its extensive expertise to push potential therapies over the finish line where others have stumbled before.
Continuing a Neuroscience Focus
Alongside this deal, Merck continues to expand its research across neurodegenerative diseases in other ways. Thus far in 2023, Merck has also entered into research collaborations to pursue non-amyloid targets for Alzheimer’s and chiral chemistry for better brain penetrance among compounds targeting neurological conditions.
“The alignment with Caraway’s innovative science and focus on elucidating disease-modifying neurotherapeutics dovetails nicely with our ongoing work,” said Addona.
Overall, Merck’s acquisition of Caraway signals both increasing momentum around emerging theories of neurodegeneration—like waste clearance’s role—and a formidable commitment by the pharma organization to translating the latest science into paradigm-shifting treatments for patients.