Merck advances two partnerships with biotech Canucks

As Merck ($MRK) works on rebooting R&D, the drug giant has rewarded a pair of its biotech partners in Canada for their progress with separate preclinical programs. This week Xenon and Zymeworks, both headquartered in Vancouver, have reported new developments in their partnerships with Merck. 

On Wednesday Xenon revealed that Merck took an option to license small molecules discovered through the two companies' alliance to hunt down new drugs for cardiovascular disease. While no financial specifics of the option event were disclosed, Xenon said that the option is part of a 2009 agreement under which the biotech could gain up to $86.5 million in R&D and regulatory milestone fees from Merck as well as royalties on any product sales.

Earlier this week Zymeworks boasted that the biotech group took in a second milestone payment from Merck under its potential $187 million deal with the pharma players to discover bi-specific antibody therapies. Like in Merck's cardio deal with Xenon, the drugmaker has exclusive marketing rights to therapies that might result from the partnership with Zymeworks.

The developments mark events of greater importance to Zymeworks and Xenon than their common Big Pharma partner, which has several late-stage programs that demand more of its attention and R&D dollars. Yet Merck CEO Ken Frazier seems keen on adding biotech influences at the company, hiring ex-Amgen R&D chief Roger Perlmutter to make some fixes to Merck's research operations as head of R&D earlier this year.

As one might expect, Zymeworks and Xenon execs sounded thrilled to be along for the ride.

"We are very pleased that Merck has exercised this option to license novel discoveries from the collaboration," Simon Pimstone, Xenon's president and CEO, said in a statement. "The discovery of loss-of-function mutations for this target in humans with protective cardiovascular profiles was central for the development of compound modulators of the target."

- here's the Xenon release
- and the one from Zymeworks

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