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Merck Just Made a $20 Million Bet On Experimental Harvard Cancer Tech

Al Gore Nominated for President of Harvard UniversityAl Gore Nominated for President of Harvard University
The school has helped spur multiple biopharma companies.Photograph by Darren McCollester — Getty Images

U.S. pharma giant Merck (MRK) is cutting a $20 million upfront check to Harvard to license the development rights for several of the university’s experimental cancer drug compounds. The so-called small molecule compounds could lead to new therapies for leukemia and other cancers.

This particular set of compounds was developed by Harvard researcher Matthew Shair and his team, and the university’s Chief Technology Development Officer, Isaac Kohlberg, said the licensing arrangement could become the “most significant” such deal Harvard has struck.

On top of the upfront fee, Merck will be on the hook for tiered royalties down the line (contingent on clearing various milestones), although the organizations haven’t disclosed those specifics.

The deal is an example of the sort of tech transfer which has helped fuel early-stage drug candidates into clinical development and testing via deals with biopharmaceutical companies. And the initial research was supported by Harvard’s Blavatnik Biomedical Accelerator, which was created with the very purpose of spurring initial lab research with the eventual goal of landing in a pharma firm’s lap for continued development.

 

$20 million may not seem like a particularly exciting sum given the exorbitant amount of cash tossed around in the life sciences. But it’s actually a pretty major payment for unproven compounds which may, ultimately, fail to net effective and lucrative new therapies.

That’s because this specific technology is in “relatively late-stage preclinical development,” according to Merck and Harvard.