A pioneering biology-centric R&D approach allows NGM Biopharmaceuticals to identify novel pathways and generate promising biologic compounds—including several that address previously unknown or undruggable targets in metabolic pathways. The power of NGM’s innovative drug discovery engine attracted Merck’s attention, and together an alliance was formed that includes multiple drug candidates and encompasses a wide range of therapeutic areas.
“This collaboration allows us to play to our strengths... to accelerate our ambition and our vision of how to do R&D.”
From the start, the two companies shared a vision: to develop bold, landscape-changing therapies for serious illnesses and to follow the science without regard to therapeutic area. And in order to provide NGM with what they need to pursue these ambitious R&D goals and thrive, the partnership gives NGM the freedom to follow their scientific instincts.
“While we were intentional about creating a unique, small-company drug discovery culture, we also had to think about ‘growing up’ issues,” says NGM Bio founder and Chief Scientific Officer, Jin-Long Chen, Ph.D. As compounds showed promise, how would NGM build out the capacity to move them into large-scale clinical trials and beyond that, take them to market as new therapies? It seemed likely that the company would eventually have to limit its focus to a few of the most promising candidates. However, this would undermine its commitment to a “disease-agnostic” approach to research and development.
Even as NGM considered its future, Merck was taking notice. Many people at NGM and Merck had worked together closely in the past, and they had developed a sense of trust that can only be built over time. For more than six years, these conversations continued, with Merck showing keen interest in NGM’s biology-driven approach. Despite the company’s differences in history, size and scope, they realized they shared a belief in the power of new biology insights as the basis for developing breakthrough therapies.
Stored in liquid nitrogen, mammalian cells are used to produce NGM’s promising biologic compounds.
“Based on my interactions before the agreement, I really knew the people of Merck, how they view innovation, how they view science-based drug discovery, and how they deal with really complicated drug development,” says Dr. Chen. It came to a point where he began to think, “Sooner or later, we’re going to work with Merck.”
In February 2015, Merck purchased an equity stake in the company and agreed to fund most of its R&D efforts for an initial period of five years. Dr. Chen recalls asking Merck what they wanted out of the partnership and being told in reply, “Follow your scientific instincts.” Ben Thorner, head of MRL Business Development & Licensing, says “The spirit of the relationship is much less prescriptive than in a typical big pharma partnership. Sure we give them feedback based on our experience, but they can act on it or not. We trust them to continue to do great science.”
The Merck and NGM teams meet face-to-face on a regular basis to share research and development progress and explore future opportunities.
Already, Merck has licensed two investigational drug candidates from NGM’s pipeline that are in preclinical testing for obesity, diabetes and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). That Merck has a proven legacy in leading global product development and commercialization, particularly for diabetes drugs, was incredibly appealing to NGM. “Merck is a unique company in a way. It has this legendary record of excellence in innovation,” says Dr. Chen.
NGM has more than doubled its workforce, from about 70 before the agreement to 160 employees and growing. It has continued R&D on roughly a dozen preclinical candidates and is building out its pipeline in a number of disease areas.
“The partnership has been transformative for NGM,” says Dr. Chen. “Our collaboration with Merck allows us to play to our strengths, and at the same time retain our very unique drug discovery culture. With it, we can accelerate our ambition and our vision of how to do R&D.”