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Moderna in line for $240m licensing deal

Moderna Therapeutics Inc., a Cambridge biotechnology start-up launched with venture capital funding last year, is set to disclose Thursday that it will receive a $240 million upfront payment to license its protein-stimulating technology to drug giant AstraZeneca PLC.

Under the agreement, AstraZeneca will use Moderna’s “messenger RNA” technology — which stimulates the body’s ability to produce therapeutic proteins — to develop as many as 40 drugs over the next five years to combat cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

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Moderna will be eligible for another $180 million in milestone payments if the drug programs meet certain technical goals. Eventually, it could also receive royalty payments if the drugs are approved by regulators in the United States and abroad.

The deal is the latest in a series of collaborations between Boston-area biotechs and global pharmaceutical companies that have set up shop here to tap into Massachusetts’ biomedical expertise. AstraZeneca, an Anglo-Swedish drug maker based in London, said earlier this week that it will be expanding its Waltham research center even as the company cuts back at other sites around the world.

“This is a historic deal,” said Stephane Bancel, chief executive of Moderna, who described it as the largest partnering agreement between a drug maker and a biotech that had not yet brought an experimental treatment to the clinical-trial stage of development. “This is a win-win. We are going to have so much money now that we can invest in hiring more people and developing more drugs.”

Bancel said Moderna will continue to pursue its own research into drugs for cancer and rare diseases and will double its space outside Kendall Square, where it now has 32 employees. He said the deal with AstraZeneca makes sense because “clinical trials in cardiology are very long and very expensive, and AstraZeneca is one of the best cardiology companies in the world.”

AstraZeneca officials were not available to discuss the collaboration.

Moderna, which emerged from stealth mode in December, was jump-started with $40 million in financing from Cambridge venture capital firm Flagship Ventures and private investors. It has the backing of area biopharmaceutical heavyweights, including Robert Langer, an MIT professor whose lab has spun out many drug firms. Moderna’s aim is to deploy its pioneering technology to develop drugs to treat cancers, genetic diseases, hemophilia, diabetes, and other conditions.

The deal calls for Moderna to design messenger RNA therapeutics for specific disease targets and ship them to AstraZeneca, which will develop the drugs and seek approval to put them on the market.

AstraZeneca said this week that it will consolidate its global research into three large scientific clusters, in England, Sweden, and Gaithersburg, Md., all supported by its Waltham research site.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.
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