Merck circles back to RNA with big early-stage bet

Researchers are already working on improving the mRNA technology behind the hugely successful Covid vaccines, and circular RNA is a leading idea. That approach received a big endorsement from Merck & Co today in the form of an infectious disease and oncology discovery deal with Orna Therapeutics. The biotech will receive $150m up front, a hefty fee considering that its work is very much preclinical; its most advanced project is described as an in-situ anti-CD19 Car that it aims to get into the clinic by 2024, and does not seem to be covered by the Merck deal. The pharma giant is also contributing $100m towards a $221m series B that Orna announced today. Gilead, Bristol Myers Squibb, Astellas and Novartis all participated in Orna’s series A, so this is clearly a space that big developers have their eyes on. Few small start-ups are focused on the approach, although the bigger mRNA players are presumably already active. The idea behind circular RNA is to produce more stable, and therefore durable, therapeutics; linear mRNA is susceptible to degradation from its loose ends. More efficient delivery into cells, improved protein expression and cheaper manufacturing is being claimed.

Putting the O in RNA… companies working with circular RNA
Company Description Financings
Orna Therapeutics Technology described as oRNA; very early-stage pipeline includes a CD19 Car, DMD agent and vaccines Raised ~$321m to date (founded by MPM Capital), emerged from stealth in early 2021
Laronde Technology described as eRNA (endless RNA); claims broad therapeutic focus, building capacity to generate up to 100 candidates in the next 10 years Raised ~$490m to date (founded by Flagship), emerged from stealth in Oct 2021
Therorna China based; company focus unclear but founder has published on circular RNA vaccines for Covid Raised ~ $90m since early 2021
Circode China based; company focus unclear Raised ~$20m in seed funding since 2020
Circular Genomics Developing a diagnostic and therapeutic circular RNA-based genomic assay for depression Raised $4.5m in seed funding in Dec 2021
Chimerna Discovery-stage pipeline focused on kidney disease, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's Founded in 2020; no disclosed venture financing, <$1m in grant funding  
Source: Evaluate Pharma & company statements. 

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