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Merck takes the Lead in cancer drug development
March 2011
by Lori Lesko  |  Email the author
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DARMSTADT, Germany—In a strategic move aimed at bolstering Germany's pharmaceutical value chain and enhancing its status as a biopharma leader, the Lead Discovery Center GmbH (LDC), a small-molecule drug discovery spin-off of Max Planck Innovation GmbH, has signed a cooperation agreement with Merck KGaA for the discovery of kinase inhibitors as potential cancer treatments.  
 
The collaboration between academia and industry, announced by both companies Jan. 20, represents part of its nationwide "BioPharma strategy competition for medicine of the future," the key element of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesministerium fuer Bildung und Forschung-BMBF) Pharmaceuticals Initiative for Germany.
 
Kinases are key components of biochemical signaling pathways that control cellular growth, metabolism and differentiation—prime targets for drug discovery and development in many diseases, especially in oncology.
 
Michael Hamacher, head of administration at the LDC, tells ddn, "The Chemical Genomics Centre (CGC) in Dortmund has developed a technology platform that allows specific screening for allosteric kinase inhibitors. The LDC and the MPI have had an intensive collaboration for several years. Merck Serono, on the other hand, is a partner of the CGC concept and is member of the Industrial Advisory Board accompanying the LDC within BMBF. Thus, a scientific cooperation was a logical consequence."
 
Both LDC and Merck Serono "have a very similar understanding concerning R&D, industrial standards and aims," he says. "Complementary technologies and a common interest in the partnered project led to the elaboration of the underlying work plan and proposal.  
 
"Merck Serono is the well-known pharma partner with world-leading expertise in oncology, among others," Hamacher adds. "The LDC is an expert in the early drug discovery and acts as a translator between academia and industry, while the CGC offers a unique technology and respective know-how."  
 
These strengths are "combined in a close, synergistic teamwork with tasks allocated each to one of the partners and reflected by iterative joint meetings," he says.  
 
The collaborative effort could represent the tip of the iceberg. The initial goal of the project is "the identification and characterization of at least one small-molecule lead series for one of the respective kinases," Hamacher said. "Moreover, this project could be the initial start for further joint projects."
 
Merck Serono spokesperson Raphaela Farrenkopf says Merck Serono "focuses in oncology on identifying key molecules involved in the formation of cancer, which can then be used in the development of novel targeted treatments that specifically act on cancer cells. "Research activities are focused on three areas," Farrenkopf says. "Compounds that act directly on tumor cells, compounds that act indirectly on tumor cells via their interaction with their local environment and compounds that enhance the immune system." CGC group leader Daniel Rauh says identifying innovative allosteric kinase inhibitors holds "strong potential for improved potency and selectivity."  
 
The alliance between the LDC and Merck Serono "provides us with the unique chance to translate our approach into application," Rauh adds.
 
Under the terms of the agreement, the LDC and Merck Serono will work closely together, with each partner contributing its particular expertise and infrastructure as well as their own resources in the fields of assay development, screening, medicinal chemistry and pharmacology, he says. Neither the financial aspects of the deal nor specific cancer targets were disclosed.  
 
Bert Klebl, managing director of the LDC, calls the alliance a "major milestone for the LDC and could well become a role model for highly efficient and professional collaboration between academia and industry. It verifies LDC's positioning as a translational research center with the aim of leveraging excellent academic research for industrial application and the development of medicines."  
 
The Lead Discovery Center GmbH was jointly developed by Max Planck Innovation and the Max Planck Society as a novel approach to advance findings from excellent basic research into the development of medicines.
 
As an independent enterprise with an entrepreneurial outlook, the LDC collaborates with research institutions and universities as well as industry, and aims to transform promising and early-stage projects into pharmaceutical leads that reach initial proof-of-concept in animals, and that meet the increasing need for novel therapeutic agents.  
 
The Chemical Genomics Centre is an initiative of the Max Planck Society in cooperation with four companies. It stands for high quality research and strong collaborations between industry and Max Planck research. Key to the research strategy of the CGC is that chemical and biological expertise are being combined and interconnected.  
 

 
Merck, Wellcome Trust partner on rotavirus vaccine  
 
WHITEHOUSE STATION, N.J.—Having partnered on Hilleman Laboratories, an India-based vaccine development joint venture, since 2009, Merck & Co. and Britain's Wellcome Trust charity announced in late January that they are working on an oral rotavirus vaccine designed to be cheaper and easier to use than current shots.  
 
According to the companies, the vaccine aims to protect against diarrhea-causing rotavirus infections and will be based on thin strips or granules that dissolve in the mouth and can be easily transported, stored and administered. Currently available rotavirus shots, made by Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, need to be kept in cold storage, making their transportation and delivery complex and costly.  
 
Diarrhea is one of the top two killers of children under five worldwide, and rotavirus is the leading cause of severe diarrheal disease in children. Each year, rotavirus-related diarrhea kills more than 500,000 children and is the cause of many millions more needing hospital treatment.
 
Vaccines are often the best hope for tackling many diseases in poor countries, but in many cases they are either too expensive or unsuited to tropical conditions. Merck and Wellcome invest equally in Hilleman, which was launched with a combined cash contribution of $144 million over seven years.
 
Code: E031107

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