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How Millennium Is Tapping A Harvard Lab to Help Discover New Cancer Drugs

Xconomy Boston — 

When Deborah Dunsire, CEO of Millennium: The Takeda Oncology Company, talked about what makes the Boston area an attractive place to do business at a recent Xconomy Forum, she singled out the work of J. Wade Harper at Harvard Medical School. And after a little more follow up, I’ve found that Harper is helping Millennium discover its next generation of cancer drugs.

Cambridge, MA-based Millennium formalized a deal with Harper’s Harvard lab about two years ago to collaborate on research on how certain proteins regulate activities that are important to the survival and functions of cells. Joe Bolen, the company’s chief scientific officer, told me this week that the collaboration, which was first announced in January 2008, has been quite productive. Harper’s lab has identified proteins that could serve as new targets for cancer treatments, according to Bolen, and Millennium has developed chemical drugs to block those proteins. The company is in the process of validating the effectiveness of those drug candidates in animal studies.

There are many reasons for Millennium to take a strong interest in Harper’s lab. The crown jewel of the company’s cancer drug business is bortezomib (Velcade), a so-called proteasome inhibitor that blocks the function of proteins vital to the survival of cancer cells. Bortezomib, which is approved treating multiple myeloma and mantle cell lymphoma, reached blockbuster status in 2008 with more than $1.1 billion in sales. Yet Tokyo-based drug powerhouse Takeda Pharmaceutical bought Millennium in May 2008 for $8.8 billion not just because of its blockbuster drug, but also because of the biotech firm’s pipeline of treatments and internal expertise on cancer biology. (Luke provided an overview of Millennium’s drug pipeline earlier this year, and this week the firm announced that its first oral cancer drug has entered its initial clinical trial.)

While cancer patients won’t be able to benefit from the Millennium’s work with Harper’s lab for at least several years, the collaboration has become a model for how the company wants to work with top academics in the future, Bolen said. The collaboration is also important enough to be on Dunsire’s radar. “This has been so productive and useful on many, many levels this is absolutely the kind of relationship that we are looking for in the future,” Bolen says.

Millennium and Harper’s lab are in the midst of a three-year agreement, which gives the company a license to certain discoveries from the lab. (The financial terms of the agreement are still under wraps). Bolen said that he talks to Harper or others in his lab almost daily, though the company’s scientists and Harper’s lab have agreed to meet formally to discuss the progress of their collaboration once every three months. When this collaboration was first announced, Bolen said, it was unique for the company and Harvard because such corporate sponsored research had been more limited in scope for both parties. At least at Millennium, collaborations with academic researchers are typically focused on one particular issue and have short timeframes of less than a year.

Millennium certainly isn’t the only company whose researchers collaborate closely with Harvard researchers. Whitehouse Station, NJ-based Merck (NYSE:MRK) and Cambridge-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:VRTX) have formed similar collaborations with labs at Harvard. And the practice of corporate sponsored research at universities is quite common.

Harper’s lab is focused not only on cancer but on the fundamental role of certain proteins in regulating the cell cycle—which is very important to understanding the function of cancer cells and other disease cells that grow and divide very quickly. For the past several years Harper has been studying and cataloging molecules involved in the so-called ubiquitin proteasome system—which happens to be the same system that Millennium’s blockbuster cancer drug operates on to fight cancer.That system includes proteins whose job it is serve as the cell’s garbage disposal unit, by wiping out unneeded proteins. The same system is also thought to control a cellular self-destruct process known as apoptosis, and also to repair damaged DNA, among other things. Drugs that block the function of such proteins could lead to the death of cancer cells, Bolen says. The target proteins identified in the collaboration could be useful to killing both solid tumors and malignancies in the blood, Bolen says.

He was reluctant to forecast when the drug candidates stemming from Millennium’s collaboration with Harper’s lab would enter human clinical trials, but he said that if all goes well with the animal studies the molecules could be used in human testing within the next few years. Harper was unavailable to comment on his collaboration with Millennium during the reporting of this story.