Merck KGaA teams up with Pfizer to spotlight new lupus therapies

Rival drugmakers Merck KGaA and Pfizer ($PFE) are putting their cash and expertise into a new effort to better understand lupus, tapping the Broad Institute for a Big Data approach to help map out the disease and light the way for future drug candidates.

Under the deal, the two companies will fund a Broad-helmed effort to analyze samples and sequence the genes of patients with systemic lupus erythematosus and lupus nephritis, two interrelated autoimmune diseases that can lead to serious kidney inflammation. Taking millions of measurements from lupus patients and creating new disease models, Broad's scientists will aim to identify biomarkers and discover targets for potential therapies, dissecting the cause behind damaging lupus-related kidney flares, Harvard professor and Broad member Nir Hacohen said.

All the while, Merck KGaA and Pfizer are free to peek in on that research whenever they choose, under the terms of the deal, getting real-time access to Broad's discoveries and reserving the right to send their own scientists to collaborate on the effort. Pooling the talents of all three organizations could lead to the discovery of new treatment pathways for a disease that affects an estimated 5 million people around the world, said Harsukh Parmar, head of Merck KGaA's research and early development segment.

"Combined with the Broad Institute's technical know-how, we see this collaboration aiming for a significant contribution to potential future innovative treatments of lupus and lupus nephritis," Parmar said in a statement. "This is in line with our concept to integrate genomic profiling and system biology approaches throughout our preclinical and clinical programs."

Merck KGaA and Pfizer's move follows a growing trend among contending drugmakers to collaborate on early, precompetitive research. Roche ($RHHBY) and AstraZeneca ($AZN) struck up a similar deal last year, agreeing to share discovery-stage data with one another and enlisting a third party to mediate the effort. GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) has long blazed a trial in these types of efforts, most recently teaming up with the European Bioinformatics Institute and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, and the National Institutes of Health has convinced 10 pharma heavyweights--with Pfizer in tow--to collaborate on precompetitive research on diseases including lupus.

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