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MSD teams up with Harvard to develop new leukaemia treatments

Published on 24/03/16 at 09:37am

MSD has entered a new collaboration with Harvard University aimed at developing innovative new small-molecule therapeutics for leukaemia and other cancers.

The compounds, developed in the laboratory of Harvard scientist Matthew Shair, target enzymes that regulate transcription (the process by which DNA is copied).

Of particular interest in Chemistry and Chemical Biology professor Shair’s work is his discovery of a novel strategy for treating acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) – the most common form of acute leukaemia, of which there were an estimated 20,800 new cases in the US last year. Just over a quarter (26%) of AML patients survive five years post-diagnosis.

Shair’s method works by inhibiting enzymes that regulate the transcription of key genetic programs that are altered in AML and other cancers. Supported by Harvard’s Blavatnik Biomedical Accelerator, Shair’s laboratory has developed highly selective and potent small molecules, with favourable pharmaceutical properties, that are now poised for advancement toward clinical trials.

MSD’s role will be to take over the development of candidate therapeutics and begin a research collaboration with the Shair laboratory to further study the biology of transcriptional regulator enzymes.

Professor Shair comments: “Accelerator funding over the course of several years has enabled my laboratory to advance some of our experimental compounds to a relatively late stage of preclinical development. It’s gratifying to have discovered a new biological target in the fight against AML, but even more fulfilling to have created a promising weapon against it.”

Merck will pay Harvard $20 million upfront and take responsibility for seeing products through development and commercialising them. The University is also eligible for additional payment upon certain regulatory and commercialisation milestones being met. Harvard says the payment it receives from the pharma company will fund future research.

 “This recent agreement with the Shair laboratory is rooted in our belief that collaboration is the cornerstone for improving cancer care and driving innovation. It is the partnership among industry and academia that is truly critical to transforming cancer treatment and advancing the care for patients with difficult-to-treat blood cancers, such as acute myeloid leukaemia,” says Dr Eric Rubin, vice president and therapeutic area head, oncology early stage development, Merck Research Laboratories.

 “University researchers bring a great degree of creativity and innovation to the toughest challenges in human medicine,” adds Isaac Kohlberg, Harvard’s senior associate provost and chief technology development officer. “Professor Shair’s inventive leukaemia research, with funding from the Blavatnik Biomedical Accelerator, has reached a stage of development that is unusual in most universities but of great interest to the health care industry and ultimately to patients. His work could change the way clinicians treat a major disease.”

Joel Levy

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