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Merck Again Turns To India For R&D

Deal with Nicholas Piramal is second in a year with an Indian company

by Jean-François Tremblay
November 26, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 48

Credit: NPIL
Mumbai-based NPIL signed drug discovery deals with Merck and Lilly this year.
Credit: NPIL
Mumbai-based NPIL signed drug discovery deals with Merck and Lilly this year.

MUMBAI-BASED Nicholas Piramal India Ltd. (NPIL) has agreed to develop new cancer drugs for two targets provided by Merck & Co. The Indian firm will earn as much as $175 million in milestone payments for each target, as well as royalties on pharmaceuticals that Merck commercially launches.

NPIL will undertake a wide range of drug discovery activities, including identifying leads, performing preclinical work, and supervising trials on humans. Merck will have the option to buy the rights to compounds developed by NPIL after the drug candidates successfully get through Phase IIa of clinical trials.

An NPIL spokesman tells C&EN that the company's in-house drug discovery program already focuses on oncology. Having Merck provide targets saves NPIL as much as three years of research time, he says. He adds that NPIL researchers identify promising lead compounds mostly by drawing on the company's library of 40,000 natural product extracts. At present, an NPIL drug candidate that aims to treat multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, is undergoing human trials in the U.S. at Harvard University's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

In January, NPIL signed a research agreement with Eli Lilly & Co. under which the Indian company agreed to license a preclinical drug candidate. Under that deal, Lilly has the option to relicense the compound for as much as $100 million after NPIL completes clinical studies up to Phase III (C&EN, Jan. 22, page 18).

Mervyn Turner, Merck's senior vice president for worldwide licensing and external research, says the agreement with NPIL furthers his company's strategy of using global alliances to expand its drug pipeline, especially in countries such as India with "rapidly expanding drug discovery competencies." A year ago, the U.S. firm signed an agreement with India's Advinus Therapeutics to codevelop drugs that treat metabolic disorders.

As is the case with NPIL, Merck provided Advinus with two targets. A key difference between the two deals is that Advinus received upfront payments while NPIL will not. On the other hand, Advinus is eligible for milestone payments of no more than $74.5 million per target.



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