How Millennium Is Tapping A Harvard Lab to Help Discover New Cancer Drugs

11/24/09

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still under wraps). Bolen said that he talks to Harper or others in his lab almost daily, though the company’s scientists and Harper’s lab have agreed to meet formally to discuss the progress of their collaboration once every three months. When this collaboration was first announced, Bolen said, it was unique for the company and Harvard because such corporate sponsored research had been more limited in scope for both parties. At least at Millennium, collaborations with academic researchers are typically focused on one particular issue and have short timeframes of less than a year.

Millennium certainly isn’t the only company whose researchers collaborate closely with Harvard researchers. Whitehouse Station, NJ-based Merck (NYSE:MRK) and Cambridge-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:VRTX) have formed similar collaborations with labs at Harvard. And the practice of corporate sponsored research at universities is quite common.

Harper’s lab is focused not only on cancer but on the fundamental role of certain proteins in regulating the cell cycle—which is very important to understanding the function of cancer cells and other disease cells that grow and divide very quickly. For the past several years Harper has been studying and cataloging molecules involved in the so-called ubiquitin proteasome system—which happens to be the same system that Millennium’s blockbuster cancer drug operates on to fight cancer.That system includes proteins whose job it is serve as the cell’s garbage disposal unit, by wiping out unneeded proteins. The same system is also thought to control a cellular self-destruct process known as apoptosis, and also to repair damaged DNA, among other things. Drugs that block the function of such proteins could lead to the death of cancer cells, Bolen says. The target proteins identified in the collaboration could be useful to killing both solid tumors and malignancies in the blood, Bolen says.

He was reluctant to forecast when the drug candidates stemming from Millennium’s collaboration with Harper’s lab would enter human clinical trials, but he said that if all goes well with the animal studies the molecules could be used in human testing within the next few years. Harper was unavailable to comment on his collaboration with Millennium during the reporting of this story.

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