The link did not open. So here it is. It is in a research stage far from a clinical one.
Biochemist strikes gold Meredith Wadman
Top of pageAbstractMerck is tapping into academic research in its hunt for drug candidates. Meredith Wadman reports on the company's latest deal with Harvard.
It's the stuff of academics' daydreams: do the science that opens a route to drugs for a common, debilitating and, so far, untreatable condition. Then have a megacompany swoop in and pay you handsomely for the privilege of � just maybe � turning your labours into a cure.
But in this case, it's no daydream. Late last month, it was announced that Harvard University and one of its biological chemists, Robert Rando, had signed a $3-million-plus deal with Merck, aimed at developing drugs to battle a leading cause of blindness.
Under the agreement, the New Jersey drug company gets exclusive licenses to a family of candidate small-molecule drugs that Rando, a specialist in the biology of vision, has discovered and patented. The company hopes to find a drug that slows or prevents age-related macular degeneration (AMD) � a disease of the retina that is currently destroying the vision of nearly two million people in the United States alone1.
The deal includes undisclosed future milestone and royalty payments from Merck if the company succeeds in developing a drug. "This is perfect," says Rando, "because I absolutely can't do what they are going to do. They are hopefully going to take this basic work and turn it into a drug."
Foresight: Merck strikes a deal that may help find a cure for a retina disease that affects millions. The decision to strike such a deal reflects Merck's determination "to find innovation wherever it's occurring", says Robert Gould, the company's vice president of licensing and external research. In this case, he adds, it was happening "across the street at Harvard". Gould is based at Merck's two-year-old, 11-storey research laboratory in downtown Boston, right opposite the Harvard Medical School complex (see page 780).
Under Harvard policy, Rando will pocket $750,000 of the up-front payment � an unusually large amount for a deal between a drug company and an academic investigator. Rando's laboratory, his department and the Harvard Medical School each get the same amount.
Isaac Kohlberg, who heads technology development at Harvard, says the agreement shows a new willingness on the part of pharmaceutical companies to reach further 'upstream' into academic labs in search of promising drugs. "Three or four years ago, if a project was not in phase II [of human clinical trials], large pharma was not interested," says Kohlberg. "Now, when a project has established proof of principle; the mechanism of action is clear; and you have results in animal studies, they will definitely be interested in acquiring rights."
Merck, Harvard and Rando first started talking last spring. Harvard's technology-development office was already in contact with half a dozen companies about Rando's work. Merck, in the meantime, had come across Rando's papers (see 'The science behind the deal'). The company, long involved with ophthalmologic drugs, was drawn to Rando's work on visual-cycle inhibition as an approach to preventing AMD.
"Right from the first conversation, there was a meeting of the minds," says Gould. Soon, Merck's top eye-drug developers, based in West Point, Pennsylvania, made the trip to Boston to meet with Rando and Harvard tech-transfer officials. After several months of pounding out details, the deal was finally signed in February.
The Rando agreement is one of only a handful forged between Merck and academics. These are far outnumbered, so far, by its deals with biotechs and drug firms. But the balance may be shifting. "This type of partnership really does represent an important part of our strategy moving forward," says Gould. "It
This Rando's program MRK is pursuing does not involve RNAi, but involves a novel mechanism that appears distinct from the programs pursued by ALNY, or RNAI, or DNA because Lucentis, for example, attacks excess vascularity in central portion of retina, which causes the 'wet form' of AMD.
When RNAi is developed to inhibit VEGF(vascular endothelial growth factor), it can control the wet form of AMD as well as it can suppress the tumor vessel formation. I am certain that the research entered into the AMD program will be a tremendous asset when RNAi tackles solid tumors.