Sage Bionetworks Snags Deal with Merck, Second Major Pharma Partner

Xconomy Seattle — 

Stephen Friend has, you might say, a mutually beneficial relationship with his former employer. Friend, the former senior vice president of Merck’s cancer research division, has secured another round of support for his fledgling open-source biology movement from Merck.

Sage Bionetworks, the nonprofit collaborative Friend co-founded a year ago in Seattle, has formed a multi-year collaboration with Merck to stitch together a database to help the drugmaker do a better job of discovering drugs for cardiovascular disease and metabolic disorders like diabetes. Financial terms of the agreement aren’t being disclosed, but the deal will enable Sage to hire some more people, Friend says. Data from the collaboration will be available exclusively to Merck until one year after the collaboration ends, when all the data will get poured into the public domain, Friend says.

This is the latest sign of support from Merck for Friend’s vision of what amounts to an open-source movement for biology. Merck was an instrumental player in the founding of Sage, when it seeded the effort with intellectual property that represented a $150 million, eight-year investment in the company’s former Rosetta Inpharmatics unit. Merck and Sage both are seeking help from the world’s biology community to stitch together “network biology” models that seek to connect the dots between variations in DNA, RNA, and proteins, and understand how that is correlated with clinical symptoms of disease that physicians see. If Sage can help create these network models, the thinking goes, it ought to help drugmakers do a better job of predicting which drugs will succeed in clinical trials, and help physicians prescribe the right drug to the right patient.

“This agreement is really a confirmation from Merck that the work we’ve done in the past year is valuable to them going forward,” Friend says.

Stephen Friend

Stephen Friend

Luciano Rosetti, senior vice president of Merck Research Laboratories, said in a statement, “The integrated genomics technology developed at Rosetta and refined at Merck has already provided critical information to better inform drug discovery efforts in diabetes. Collaborations with innovative organizations such as Sage are an integral part of our drug development strategy.”

Sage has spent much of the past year securing support from organizations other than Merck. The list of backers includes Quintiles, the National Cancer Institute, the Cure Huntington’s Disease Initiative, the Canary Foundation, and Pfizer, to name a few.

The partnership with Pfizer follows the same template as the new deal with Merck. The big difference is that Pfizer is using the Sage network approach to help develop cancer drugs, while Merck is concentrating on cardiovascular disease and metabolic disorders, Friend says. Both deals both contain language that says the data from the collaboration is proprietary until one year after the partnership ends.

I asked Friend whether he’s heard any criticism from academics who balk at the idea of a drug company getting exclusive access to data that’s supposed to be poured into the public domain. He’s getting an opposite reaction, he says. Academic researchers have told him they have more confidence that Sage has a chance to get off the ground now that it has some corporate backing, and that the Sage Commons will surely become a richer dataset once Merck and Pfizer start pouring their data in, he says.

“The academic groups I’ve talked with are pleased that pharma and biotech companies are willing to take the data and models and deposit it in the public domain,” Friend says. “Three to five years ago, most companies felt they needed to have their data sequestered for five to seven years after it has been generated.”

Some of the issues about who controls the data, and what happens to the intellectual property when data goes into the Sage Commons are a couple of the issues that will be discussed and debated at the founding congress Sage is holding on April 23-24 in San Francisco. I’m planning to attend this meeting and cover it, so if you have any questions you’d like to ask of the key players as they set up this model, please send them along to me.