Merck buddies up to Scripps spinout Abide in $430M diabetes partnership

Yesterday Merck's top executives spent a considerable amount of time trying to reassure analysts that the Big Pharma company is actively engaged in the hunt for new drugs needed to beef up a weak pipeline. Today, San Diego-based Abide Therapeutics--a startup inspired by work done by a pair of prominent investigators at Scripps--pulled back the covers from a $430 million discovery deal with Merck focused on diabetes and metabolic diseases.

As in most Merck ($MRK) pacts, the size of the upfront is being kept under wraps. Few Merck deals get into the nitty-gritty of the financial details. But there is some research funding along with milestones of up to $430 million for three products. Abide also gets a slice of the royalties on any marketed drug that may come out of the collaboration.

The focus of Merck's interest is serine hydrolases, a large family of enzymes which play a role in a range of diseases. Abide's platform, based on technology developed at The Scripps Research Institute by Ben Cravatt and Dale Boger, promises to target serine hydrolases with small molecules.

Abide CEO Alan Ezekowitz

"There are 225 members of this family," said Abide CEO Alan Ezekowitz, "and there have been only two or three drugs made by interrogating this family." But the crop includes Merck's blockbuster Januvia, and the partners believe that there are more big drugs to be identified in the field.

Ezekowitz's background has given him some great insights into the technology as well as Merck. He has been the senior vice president and franchise head for head, bone, respiratory, immunology, endocrine, dermatology and urology at Merck Research Laboratories, where he worked for 5 years before he become an entrepreneur-in-residence at Cardinal Partners, which funded the startup. And he's working closely with his fellow co-founders, Cravatt and Boger.

Currently, the startup has 10 staffers. And while he expects to expand a little with this latest collaboration, the CEO says the staff isn't expected to grow past 20. 

- here's the press release