Block and load
LONDON—WNT ligands are key regulators of cell reproduction, development and survival, mediating a range of functions such as regeneration and injury repair in adult tissues in a process that involves regulating a number of biochemical signaling pathways. Now, Cancer Research Technology (CRT), the commercial arm of Cancer Research UK, along with the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in London and Merck Serono, a division of Darmstadt, Germany-based Merck KGaA, have signed a licensing deal to discover and develop anticancer drugs that block the WNT signaling pathway.
The groups are all very familiar with each other already, as this licensing deal actually extends a previous alliance to discover and develop anticancer drugs that block the WNT signaling pathway. This new deal also grants Merck Serono the rights to develop molecules discovered through the recently completed four-year research collaboration between Merck Serono, CRT, ICR and Cardiff University.
As part of the new work, ICR, CRT and Merck Serono are beginning a two-year collaboration to progress the existing compounds toward candidates for clinical trials and design further molecules to target the WNT signaling pathway. They will also collaborate to discover biomarkers for target inhibition and patient selection. Merck Serono will have rights to the intellectual property from this two-year project just as they now have IP rights for the previous four years' work.
"Originally, we had set up a three-year collaboration with Merck Serono and they extended that by a year, and at the end they decided to exercise their license option," Dr. Phil L'Huillier, CRT's director of business development, tells DDNews. "But on top of that, they decided to keep working with us and ICR. It's been a very effective collaboration, and a very effective team. It's also been a very stable team, and there are complementary skill sets that just made it too valuable not to continue working together. I think what stands out in our work is well and how quickly this collaboration has moved and the recognition that sticking together is the quickest path toward success."
The new drug discovery work will be carried out by scientists at ICR in London and at Merck Serono's headquarters in Darmstadt with some financial support from Cancer Research UK.
Merck Serono will pay an upfront license fee to CRT and make further payments to CRT upon reaching development milestones. Merck Serono will also pay royalties from potential future drugs. CRT will share revenue with ICR and Cardiff University.
The WNT pathway derives its name from the Drosophila (fruit-fly) "Wingless" gene and the mouse "INT-1" gene. Faults in the WNT pathway can leave it permanently switched on, and this is linked to the development of colorectal, breast and other cancers, note CRT, ICR and Merck Serono, as well as an aberrantly activated WNT pathway possibly playing a role in establishing and maintaining cancer stem cells within tumors.
"Signaling through the WNT pathway is critical to uncontrolled cell proliferation in a number of tumor types, particularly colorectal cancer. In some cases the WNT pathway is permanently switched on by mutations in components of this signaling cascade, leading to uncontrolled growth," noted Prof. Julian Blagg, the project 's lead scientist at ICR, in the news release about the new licensing deal and collaboration. "In a fast-moving and successful collaboration, we have discovered small-molecule modulators of cancer cell signaling and we are excited by the opportunity to further progress this work in collaboration with Merck Serono. The announcement today helps to bring us a step closer to new treatments for cancer patients."
L'Huillier notes that while the work between the organizations will no doubt involve outside parties, such as contract research organizations and others that can help move the work along, there are no plans to involve any other partners in the collaboration deal.
Details of the work to come are still being mapped out, so L'Huillier couldn't comment on the specific next steps in the process.
"In the end, though, we are just very pleased to see a very early-stage collaboration extend out and to see the fruits of that taken on by our commercial partner," L'Huillier says. "From our perspective, that is very rewarding and a strong validation of the quality of our work together."