Merck bets up to $515M on an epigenetic project for cancer and blood disease

Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier

Merck ($MRK) is buying into a Cancer Research U.K. program that targets an enzyme key to the development of cancer and blood disease, wagering as much as $515 million on the effort.

Under the agreement, brokered through CRUK's commercialization division, Merck is paying $15 million up front for the rights to some inhibitors of the enzyme PRMT5, which regulates genes involved in cancerous growth and blood development. Merck is promising as much as $500 million more tied to R&D and commercial milestones, paying for all development activities from here on out. The pharma giant is also promising undisclosed royalties on future sales.

PRMT5 has a hand in a host of cellular processes, according to CRUK, including the regulation of the gene p53, which is defective in 90% of cancers. High PRMT5 levels are particularly common in lymphoma and leukemia, according to the institute, as well as in skin, lung and breast cancers. Beyond its role in oncology, PRMT5 pulls the strings of genes key to blood development, CRUK said, and modulating the enzyme could pave a path to therapies for disorders including sickle cell disease and beta thalassemia.

The deal is Merck's first public partnership into epigenetics, the overarching science that governs heritable genes and how they express themselves. Thanks to the sprawling complexity of biology, people with the same genotypes can have widely ranging phenotypic traits, leading researchers to delve into the upstream processes that can effectively switch genes on and off in hopes of finding new therapies.

Merck's new compounds stem from work by Australian Cooperative Research Center for Cancer Therapeutics, based in Melbourne, with the support of the Wellcome Trust. The licensing fees will be spread out among the Australian center, Wellcome and Cancer Research Technology, or CRT, which is CRUK's commercialization arm.

"The deal provides potentially significant financial returns, which CRT will invest into life-saving cancer research, and most importantly will hopefully bring promising new drugs to cancer patients as well as those suffering from blood disorders where there are no effective treatment options available," Phil L'Huillier, CRT's director of business development, said in a statement.

- read the statement