Merck Serono, Feinstein Institute form collaboration to find lupus treatments

Merck Serono and the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research have formed a partnership to develop antibodies to treat systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), an unpredictable disease that has no cure.

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A chronic inflammatory disease in which the immune system attacks the body's own tissues and organs, SLE can cause swollen, painful joints, skin rash, extreme fatigue and kidney damage. Far more women than men are affected by SLE, and anywhere from 322,000 to more than a million people in the U.S. could have the disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.

"There is a very high unmet medical need for novel therapies to treat systemic lupus erythematosus. Over the last 50 years, only one new treatment option has been approved to treat the disease," said Bernhard Kirschbaum, executive vice president and head of global research and early development for Merck Serono.

The Darmstadt, Germany-based division of Merck KGaA and the Feinstein Institute, the research arm of North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in New York, will work together on a program that will zero in on the use of antibodies to inhibit the action of certain proteins that are to blame for inflammation in the pathogenesis of lupus.

Under the terms of the agreement, Merck Serono will fund a research program at the Feinstein Institute and will be responsible for the development and commercialization of any antibodies that come out of the collaboration. Neither party disclosed the financial terms of the agreement.

Finding effective therapies for SLE has proved challenging because there are various mechanisms by which the disease is caused, including genetic and environmental factors and abnormalities of both the innate and the adaptive immune system.

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Merck Serono is investigating atacicept in Phase II of clinical development for the treatment of SLE. Atacicept targets B cells--which are thought to have a role in the pathogenesis of autoimmune diseases such as SLE--and inhibits their development.

In a statement, Merck Serono said the collaboration will allow it to further strengthen its research into alternative mechanisms for the treatment of SLE.

- see the press release