Fred Hutch Strikes Deal With GSK on Form of Muscular Dystrophy

Xconomy Seattle — 

[Updated: 12:55 pm PT] The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has spun out more than a few ideas for startup companies over the years, but it doesn’t have a history of forming big collaborations with Big Pharma. Now the Seattle-based research center is taking a step in that direction through a partnership with London-based GlaxoSmithKline.

The Hutch is announcing today that it has formed a collaboration with Glaxo to develop a small-molecule pill against a muscle disorder called facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, or FSHD. The alliance will involve company scientists and a group at the Hutch led by Stephen Tapscott, who has published work on the genetics of the disease over the past several years. Terms of the partnership aren’t being disclosed, but the agreement provides the Hutch with an upfront payment, payment of research expenses, and milestones and royalties if a lead molecule is picked up for clinical development, according to Ulrich Mueller, the Hutch’s vice president of industry relations and technology transfer. [Updated to include basic structure of agreement.]

The disease, in which muscles weaken and atrophy over time, affects the face and upper body first, and then usually works its way down to the lower body. The disorder is uncommon—it affects only about five out of every 100,000 people, according to the National Institutes of Health.

But the Hutch is hopeful that the research collaboration could someday lead to new treatments for many more people. That’s because proteins incorrectly expressed by the DUX4 gene implicated in FSHD are also thought to play a role in cancer.

Rather than simply hand over its intellectual property to a big company who handles development, the Hutch said today it plans to work closely with GSK over time to see the drug advance.

“GSK has huge expertise in developing agents against protein activity, so our opportunity to work with them is fantastic,” Tapscott said in a statement.

The partnership is noteworthy in part because the Hutchinson Center has traditionally relied on a combination of federal research grants and philanthropy to support its research, without much involvement from industry partners. But the center said in today’s statement that it is looking to strike more deals with industry partners, particularly in a period when federal research support is flatlining.

“We’re looking for more creative academic-industry partnerships like this one,” Mueller said in a statement.