MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.—A pilot service agreement between Iconix Pharmaceuticals and Merck KGaA is drawing on Iconix's toxicogenomics technology to perform in vitro studies of Merck compounds.
Phil Hewitt, head of toxicogenomics for Merck KGaA, says Merck provided Iconix with five compounds—three molecules that were halted in various stages of development and two references—to gain insight into the value of Iconix's in vitro work and better understand the compounds. Merck, says Hewitt, could establish a long-term collaboration with Iconix. "This is a first pilot project, and I really hope that this is the first step toward a continuing relationship with this company and that it will be routine. The aim would be to have them part of Merck's future in terms of analyzing gene expression data."
Jim Neal, CEO at Iconix, sees the agreement as validation of Iconix's in vitro toxicogenomics platform, which, by leveraging in vivo rat liver cell data that show gene expression changes resulting from drug exposure, looks for patterns predictive of various toxicology outcomes. "We will provide [Merck] with a report that identifies the assets and liabilities of the compounds through the lens of this rat hepatocyte gene expression profile," says Neal.
Neal believes Iconix's program, which has been available commercially for six months, is unique in the industry. "The reason we can do this in vitro is because of what we've done in vivo. We have profiled over 350 compounds in rat liver, so what we're developing is a cell-based system to predict and mirror [in vitro] what's going on in the in vivo system." Iconix's in vitro data include information on 119 compounds used with rat hepatocytes and build on the company's in vivo database, DrugMatrix, which profiles more than 600 drugs, toxicants, and standards, and is used at the FDA.
The new project, which began in August and should be completed this fall, provides Merck an opportunity to test the collaboration itself and determine the value of Iconix's global expression information in making decisions about early removal of potentially toxic drug candidates, says Hewitt. Although Merck might also contract for a developmental project with Iconix competitor Gene Logic, Hewitt notes by comparison that "the databases are slightly different and there [are] more compounds in Iconix's."
No financial details of the deal were released, but Hewitt says "we have a special deal with Iconix as a one-off," partly becasue some Merck data may enter the Iconix database. Hewitt stresses that toxicogenomics is not new to Merck, though he says in-house in vitro profiling sometimes gets stuck when the company lacks background like that in Iconix's database. Merck contracts work to the Fraunhofer Institute in Hannover, Germany, and students also perform research, so Hewitt sees them benefiting from Iconix's data on "dead" molecules in an interesting target area that could potentially see more development in the future.