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Tech Megatransfer: Merck Pays Harvard $20M For “Accelerated” Cancer Drugs

Xconomy Boston — 

Some universities are more aggressive than others in looking for ways to move life science projects out of the academic lab and into companies, what’s often known as “tech transfer.” For Harvard University, the Blavatnik Biomedical Accelerator is one such tool, and today it’s brought in a rather large chunk of change.

Merck (NYSE: MRK) is paying $20 million to Harvard to license a group of small molecule drug compounds created in the labs of Harvard chemical biologist Matthew Shair (pictured).

These drugs are meant for blood cancers like acute myeloid leukemia, and block a pair of enzymes—CDK8 and CDK19—that are implicated in AML. Shair and colleagues published a paper in Nature last September about the work.

While $20 million is a drop in the bucket for Merck, which is now responsible for developing the drugs, it’s an unusually large amount for a licensing deal with a university. Harvard senior associate provost Isaac Kohlberg says the university has done “nothing close to this” with other licensing deals.

Recent figures from the nonprofit Association of University Technology Managers back that up. According to a report from the AUTM, Harvard received about $17.3 million from 81 licenses in all of 2014, which comes out to about $200,000 apiece. (Those data are from upfront fees, not downstream payments.)

The reason Merck paid so much is that the compounds from Shair’s lab were developed much further than the norm before a deal was cut, which is where the Blavatnik money plays a role. The Blavatnik accelerator’s chief scientific officer Curtis Keith says his team has been working with Shair’s lab for almost four years, and has put “significantly more” money into this project than is typical. He wouldn’t specify how much, but normally the BBA will make small grants in the $100,000 range to conduct some basic experiments, or $300,000 or more “development” grants for “multi-year” projects, Keith says.

The BBA helps Harvard faculty members with funding, mentorship, and business advice, and helps push their work forward through relationships with contract research organizations, consultants, and industry partners. That type of assistance helped Shair get his compounds to the point that Merck was willing to write a $20 million check. In a statement, for instance, Merck and Harvard call Shair’s compounds “poised for advancement towards clinical trials” and in “relatively late-stage preclinical development.”

Kolhberg and Keith wouldn’t elaborate, however, and a Merck spokesperson … Next Page »

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