Exploring new territory

Celera inks two-year license agreement with Merck to develop RNAi-based therapeutics

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ALAMEDA, Calif.—Celera, an Applera Corp. business, is taking its proteomics experience into what it sees as a very logical direction of RNA interference (RNAi)-based therapeutics with a new two-year, exclusive license agreement with Merck & Co. Under the terms of the deal, Celera will provide Merck with access to up to 10 cancer targets for the development of RNAi therapeutics—targets that are over-expressed on the surface of several different tumor cell types and were identified using Celera's proteomics discovery platform.

"The RNAi aspect of therapeutics is new for us, but what we've been doing here for the past several years is looking for approaches that find proteins that are differentially expressed in the disease state versus the normal state," notes Dr. Steve Ruben, vice president of proteomic research at Celera. "That's basically our proteomics approach to discovery, and it's very applicable to RNAi work."

There exists a great deal of similarity in the criteria that one looks at for therapeutic features, whether in a monoclonal antibody or an RNAi therapeutic, Ruben notes, and that's why Celera is confident moving into the RNAi realm with Merck. "For example, the specificity on the diseased cell—tumor cells in this case—and the levels of expression on those cells [are handled similarly with antibodies and RNAi]," he says.

Under the terms of the deal, Merck will pay Celera a license fee for the targets, in addition to the payment of development and commercial milestones, plus royalties on selected targets that it advances successfully. Merck also has the option to extend the exclusivity period or add additional targets. Financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed, but Celera will be able to develop and commercialize related companion diagnostics, or theranostics, that are specific to certain therapeutic candidates arising from Merck's program.

Phil Robilotto, senior director of business development for Celera, sees this deal as merely the beginning of Celera's entry into RNAi, noting: "Because of the large number of targets that we have identified, there are opportunities for a multitude of partners to come in and review a variety of targets that would meet their specific needs or criteria. We are at a point where we can support multiple collaborations of this type."

"The difference now is the way we are better able to represent these opportunities to potential partners," says Ruben, explaining why now was the right time to do this kind of deal. "Potential partner companies have the option to look at the database of targets together with the validation data and pick targets based on the criteria that are specific to their needs."

Ruben adds that this new relationship with Merck extends Celera's ongoing therapeutic development collaborations and may lead to the development of tests with potential to become part of routine clinical practice in the pursuit of targeted medicine.

"What this deal represents is our vision for taking genomics and proteomics and translating it further downstream for clinical utility," says Dr. David Speechly, Celera's senior director of communications. "That is certainly true in this collaboration and it represents our strategic vision, if you will, for the rest of our business. It's something that we're excited about too, particularly with the theranostic or diagnostic applications that may derive from this work." 

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