Merck and Novo join an open-source R&D club with Amgen, Sanofi and Ono

Merck ($MRK) and Novo Nordisk ($NVO) are the latest pharma recruits for the GPCR Consortium, a global nonprofit working to shed light on an underexplored corner of biology and share its discoveries with the public.

The group--which also includes Amgen ($AMGN), Sanofi ($SNY) and Ono--is focused on proteins called G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs), which play a role in wide variety of processes in the body. Alongside universities in China and the U.S., the member companies plan to mount a precompetitive research collaboration in hopes of mapping on the 826 known GPCRs, which are poorly understood at present but could be valuable drug targets, the partners say.

Working with the drugmakers are the iHuman Institute at ShanghaiTech University, the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica and the University of Southern California. And the group is looking to sign up three more pharma companies to bolster its ranks.

The idea is to ferret out the structural coordinates of each protein using cutting-edge imaging technology, starting off on the GPCRs related to diabetes, cancer and mental disorders, the group said. And all of the consortium's findings will published in the public domain.

Novo's Peter Kurtzhals

"Of the 826 known human GPCRs, today we only have structures of 26," Novo Head of Global Research Peter Kurtzhals said in a statement. "The GPCR Consortium has created a unique opportunity to bring together the complementary skill sets and resources of pharmaceutical companies and academic research centers to study 200 additional human GPCRs, relevant to human disease and therapeutic intervention, in an organized and targeted fashion."

The group is modeling itself after Oxford University's Structural Genomics Consortium, which unites GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), Novartis ($NVS) and 9 other drugmakers with a slew of academic experts. And such public-private collaborations are becoming more popular among the world's largest research institutions. The Broad Institute has played host to similar arrangements, last year recruiting Merck KGaA and Pfizer ($PFE) into a precompetitive research alliance focused on lupus, while Roche ($RHHBY) and AstraZeneca ($AZN) have forged a wide-ranging pact to share discovery-stage data in the spirit of open science.

- read the announcement