Another mRNA company gets snapped up as Merck buys Exelead

by Stephen Riddle

The latest pharma company to make a move for an mRNA specialist is Germany’s Merck KGaA, which has offered a $780 million cash buyout to US biotech Exelead.

Unlike other recent deals however the takeover isn’t focused on adding a pipeline of mRNA candidates, as Indianapolis-based Exelead is a contract development and manufacturing organisation (CDMO) provide derives to other drugmakers.

Rather, it brings with it platform capabilities in formulations of mRNA drugs, including lipid nanoparticles used to deliver them safely to target tissues, as well as additional manufacturing capacity that will be offered to partners.

In that respect it follows a similar model to Merck’s takeover of AmpTec, another CDMO that uses a PCR platform to make mRNA drugs, for an undisclosed sum last year.

Outsourcing services are on of the pillars of Merck’s business, delivered via its process solutions unit, part of the group’s life sciences division. The unit contributed almost €3.4 billion out of Merck’s total revenues of €14.4 billion in the first nine months of 2021.

mRNA emerged as the most important new technology for the biopharma sector in 20021, as COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna – which both use lipid nanoparticles for delivery – quickly became the mainstay of many immunisation programmes around the world.

Exelead was part of that success, helping to manufacture vaccine precursors for the Pfizer/BioNTech shot Comirnaty.

The stellar success of the COVID-19 jabs – bringing in billions of dollars in revenues and profits for their developers – prompted a string of M&A and licensing deals last year, notably Sanofi’s $3.2 billion acquisition of Translate Bio and $470 million purchase of Tidal Therapeutics.

“Novel modalities, particularly mRNA, present a highly attractive business opportunity as pharma and biotech pipelines are increasingly building on them beyond COVID-19,” said Merck chief executive Belén Garijo.

Just this week Pfizer and BioNTech added an mRNA-based shingles vaccine to their ongoing alliance, which also includes new flu vaccines, and the technology is also showing promise in non-infectious disease applications including heart failure.

“The acquisition of Exelead will further enable Merck to capture the significant potential of the fast-growing market for mRNA therapies by providing leading CDMO services to our customers,” he added.

Exelead – which until 2017 was known as Sigma Tau Pharmasource – has around 200 staff members, with 50 added as a result of the Pfizer/BioNTech contract. Last year the company undertook a major expansion project, adding new formulation suites and filling lines at its main Indianapolis campus.

The deal is scheduled to close in the first quarter of this year, pending the usual closing requirements and antitrust reviews.

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