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Star-crossed Merck reorganizes troubled biosimilars effort around Samsung pact

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Just two months after Merck ($MRK) dropped out of a snake-bit biosimilar development program for Enbrel, the pharma giant--which has experienced a number of setbacks in the field--has stepped back up with a new, high-profile partnership, teaming up with a new venture formed by the South Korean conglomerate Samsung and Biogen Idec ($BIIB). 

As is often the case with Merck, the Big Pharma company opted to keep most of the details of the deal under wraps. About all Merck would say is that the partnership covers "multiple pre-specified and undisclosed biosimilar candidates." There's no word on the size of the upfront and milestones included in the pact.

Samsung Bioepis, pairing Biogen Idec and Samsung, will be responsible for all the development work in the deal, while Merck gains commercialization rights.

Merck set out to develop biosimilars with a big effort back in 2008, announcing plans to invest $1.5 billion into the burgeoning business. But Merck, which has had a tough time developing new drugs, ran into one hurdle after the next in their attempt to develop new versions of old biologics. Its first big program for a follow-on version of Amgen's ($AMGN) Aranesp was dropped in 2010. And in 2011 Merck's hopes for a biosimilar of Enbrel were rocked by a surprise patent announcement from Amgen, which was followed by Merck's exit. And less than a year ago Mike Kamarck, who was named to run Merck BioVentures in 2010, left the company as the biosimilars operation was folded into a division of Merck Research Laboratories.

Samsung and Merck, though, now believe they have the right approach.

"Samsung Bioepis has been building the capabilities needed to develop high-quality biosimilars," said Christopher Hansung Ko, Ph.D., CEO of Samsung Bioepis. "With this development and commercialization agreement, Samsung takes a significant step toward becoming a major player in the biopharmaceutical industry."

- here's the press release

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