Merck Serono Israel incubator nurtures early stage projects

Merck Germany head of pharmaceuticals Dr. Stefan Oschmann says R&D is enjoying a renaissance at big pharma companies.

Germanys Merck KgaA (XETRA: MRK) unit Merck Serono is one of the most active healthcare corporations in Israel. The company, which has allotted 10 million to an incubator for new Israeli companies at its R&D center in Yavne, Inter-Lab, has now added two new companies to the project: Chanbio and Metabomed.

Chanbio is engaged in the discovery of antibodies that act on ion channels in the cell, a mechanism that could help treat multiple sclerosis. It should be remembered that Merck Seronos lead product for the treatment of multiple sclerosis, Rebif, was developed in collaboration with the Weizmann Institute of Science. The current product is in the very early development stage, but the incubator exists precisely for products like this, says Inter-Lab managing director Regine Shevach. She predicts that 7-8 more companies will join the incubator by the end of 2014.

Merck Serono Israel Bioincubator manager Simone Botti says, Ion channels belong to an important group of disease mechanisms. This field has the potential for the development of therapies for the treatment of a wide range of diseases.

ChanBio CEO Dr. Oren Bogin, a former research director at Protalix, adds, The support and infrastructures received from the Merck Serono fund is an extraordinary opportunity for our company to use the technology we developed for the discovery of new protein-based medicines.

The second company, Metabomed, will be jointly financed by MS Ventures, Boheringer Ingelheim, Pontifax, and the Technion R&D fund. The company is engaged in the field of cancer metabolism, and it links three leading researchers in the field: Prof. Eyal Gottlieb of the Beatson Cancer Metabolism Research Institute in Glasgow, Scotland; Prof. Eytan Ruppin of Tel Aviv University; and Dr. Tomer Shlomo of the Technion Israel Institute of Technology. The company is in the early cancer drug discovery stage.

The two companies will join the venture that is already operating at the incubator, in collaboration with Compugen Ltd. (Nasdaq: CGEN; TASE: CGEN). At the same time, unconnected to the incubator, Merck is cooperating with Kadimastem (TASE: KDST) to develop treatments for multiple sclerosis, and with CureLight on nanoparticles, in which Merck has already invested several million dollars.

To mark the expanded collaboration, Merck head of pharmaceuticals Dr. Stefan Oschmann visited Israel. In a talk with Globes, he said, The incubator is a unique program that Merck Serono has nowhere else outside Israel, not even in Germany. This is our way of supporting really early-stage projects and to give them our experience. Scientists and entrepreneurs do not know to, or are not interested in, dealing with things like accounting, intellectual property support, or hiring laboratories. We do this for them at low cost. Really early stage

In recent years, says Oschmann, companies have resumed seeking genuine innovation. At the same time, regulators, especially the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have begun granting certain relaxations in registration for breakthrough drugs. There is now a renaissance in R&D at big pharma companies. Analysts, who a few years ago asked whether the pharma model could work in the future, are now much more optimistic.

Globes: What would you do today with a company like Teva, which is deliberating between improved generics and innovation?

Oschmann: I cannot answer such a question. Dr. Jeremy Levin (Tevas ousted CEO) is my friend. I can tell you that we at Merck also had a generics division, but we sold it and acquired Serono.

Oschmann says that a very important field for Merck Serono is biosimilars, products that are similar to existing biological drugs. We are cooperating in this area with generics company Dr. Reddy, but we see the biosimilars market as very different from the generics market. Globes: In which fields are you seeking collaborations?

Were active in 3-4 areas. In neurodegenerative diseases - the degeneration of brain cells - is our heritage. There are amazing developments in immunology. In oncology (cancer), which accounts for 80% of our R&D, there have also been the most exciting approvals in the last few years. Immuno-oncology - the treatment of cancer through the immune system is a developing field, which I believe we are well focused on. Personally, I would like to see a good treatment for bilharzia in Africa.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - - on December 15, 2013

Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2013

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