Building better bones

Merck, Harvard to advance osteoporosis research

Amy Swinderman
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CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Harvard University's Office of Technology Development announced last month it signed a multi-year license and sponsored research agreement with Merck & Co. Inc. to advance novel therapies for osteoporosis.

Under the agreement, Merck will fund ongoing osteoporosis research in the laboratory of Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Laurie Glimcher. Merck will be granted a license to certain specific molecules that may arise from the project. Financial terms were not disclosed.

Dr. Alan B. Ezekowitz, senior vice president and franchise head of Bone, Respiratory, Immunology and Endocrine at Merck Research Laboratories, says Glimcher's emerging research sheds new light on the key molecular events that underlie bone formation in adults, yielding insights that open new potential avenues for intervening with therapies designed to treat or prevent osteoporosis. Glimcher's laboratory has already identified several key mediators of bone growth, he adds.

"By working together, we now hope to translate these important scientific findings into the development of therapies for the treatment of diseases of low bone mass," Ezekowitz says. "This collaboration underscores our strategy of building alliances with world leaders in our priority areas of research."

Merck's leadership in the development and commercialization of therapies for osteoporosis made it an ideal partner for Harvard, says Isaac T. Kohlberg, senior associate provost and chief technology development officer at Harvard and head of the university's Technology Development Office.

"Harvard is fully committed to ensuring that the work of its faculty and researchers is turned rapidly into clinical advances that can help those suffering from a variety of diseases. This major collaboration reflects our continued dedication to ensuring that our faculty's leading-edge research advances rapidly into clinical development, and ultimately, medical practice," Kohlberg says.

The agreement is "a true collaboration in every sense of the word," Kohlberg stresses, as Harvard and Merck will work together to advance Glimcher's research.

"We are very proud of the pioneering nature of this collaboration, and look forward to working closely with Merck to accelerate the translation of this research into new therapeutic modalities for patients," he says.

Glimcher's research has elucidated the role of a recently identified regulator in adult bone formation. As described by Glimcher and her colleagues, this adaptor protein, or "master switch," regulates the growth of cells called osteoblasts that are responsible for bone formation.

Building on this and subsequent discoveries, the Merck-Harvard research collaboration will seek to identify compounds that can effectively intervene in this pathway to enhance the growth of osteoblasts in humans, with the goal of strengthening bone and staving off osteoporosis.

"In order to create novel, first-in-class, new treatments for osteoporosis, it is critical to identify new molecular and cellular targets," Kohlberg says. "Dr. Laurie Glimcher and her colleagues at Harvard have worked to elucidate the key molecular events that underlie bone formation in adults, and have advanced an impressive body of research showing the critical role that certain proteins play in the differentiation of osteoblasts. This is an area of intense interest both scientifically and clinically."

Glimcher's work will involve further elucidating the relevant molecular pathways, identifying a pipeline of potential novel drug targets, screening these targets to identify those that are most promising and moving those promising candidates ahead into further preclinical testing, Kohlberg says.

"The next stage of research is translational in nature—how do we turn the cumulative know-how and technologies developed by the Glimcher lab into true breakthroughs that form the next generation of osteoporosis treatments?" he says. "Our goal is to create truly novel therapies to address this large and growing health problem. Osteoporosis affects at least 75 million people worldwide, and there is a recognized need for new therapeutic approaches that can help affected individuals who are not adequately served by today's medicines."

Amy Swinderman

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