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Merck forms non-profit research institute for academic collaborations

In the latest union between academia and industry, pharmaceutical giant Merck today announced that it would create a non-profit research entity called the California Institute for Biomedical Research (Calibr). The institute aims to hire about 150 scientists and will be headed by chemist and serial entrepreneur Peter Schultz (pictured in a possible metaphor for recruitment, right) of The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.

Pharmaceutical companies are eagerly embracing academic collaborations as they seek new drug leads while trimming internal research and development (R&D) budgets (see Drug buddies). Merck, based in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, has cut its R&D budget by over US$600 million since 2009.

Calibr will allow Merck to tap into basic biomedical research while opening up drug-discovery tools to academics, says Peter Kim, Merck’s head of R&D. “There are scientists who would very much like to see whether or not they can utilize their discoveries to develop a drug, but they don’t have access to the medicinal chemistry or pharmacology tools they need,” he says.

Unlike the Centers for Therapeutic Innovation that Pfizer, a pharmaceutical company based in New York, has established in collaboration with specific academic medical centres around the country, Calibr will not be associated with any particular institution. (Schultz, however, will remain at Scripps.) Instead, academics from around the world can submit research proposals, which will then be reviewed by a scientific advisory board, says Kim. The institute itself will be overseen by a board of directors that includes venture capitalists. Calibr will not have a specific therapeutic focus.

Merck, meanwhile, will have the option of an exclusive licence on any proteins or small-molecule therapeutics to emerge from the work at Calibr. Kim says that he doesn’t expect intellectual property — a classic sticking point in negotiations between academia and industry — to be a problem. “We work with academic institutions already, and the intellectual property issues are pretty straightforward,” he says, adding that Calibr will be free to seek outside funding to develop projects that Merck decides not to license.

Image: the Schultz lab

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