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International partnership may hold the key to new cancer therapies

This article featured in Illuminate Newsletter Winter ‘22
Key Researchers
Senior Research Officer
Laboratory Head
WEHI has joined forces with the leading science and technology company Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany on a drug discovery campaign to find new cancer therapeutics. 

The partnership will leverage WEHI’s expertise in minor splicing and the genetic regulation of rapid cell growth and proliferation. 

At a glance 

  • WEHI has joined forces with the leading science and technology company Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany on a drug discovery campaign to find new cancer therapeutics for a broad spectrum of cancers. 
  • WEHI scientists have shown that some cancer types are more vulnerable to inefficient minor splicing than normal cells. By therapeutically targeting this class of splicing, WEHI and Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany scientists hope to stop these cancers from growing and spreading without harming healthy cells. 
  • The four-year agreement will allow researchers to progress the program through the drug discovery pipeline and into human clinical trials. 

Developing a new class of cancer therapeutics 

Splicing is the process by which introns, the non-coding regions of genes, are excised from the primary messenger RNA transcript and the exons are joined together to generate mature messenger RNA that directs the synthesis of proteins. 

WEHI researchers photographed at the Institute
L-R: Dr Karen Doggett, Associate Professor Joan
Heath, Dr Stephen Mieruszynski, Dr Kimberly
Morgan.

Cancers that carry a mutation in the KRAS gene, including liver and lung cancer, are dependent upon a sub-type of splicing that is particularly important to vigorously proliferating cells. 

A team involving laboratories across WEHI and Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, will use high-throughput chemical screening to find and develop compounds that inhibit this sub-type of splicing and evaluate their potential as novel anti-cancer therapeutics. 

WEHI lead scientist, cancer biologist Associate Professor Joan Heath, said the partnership between WEHI and Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany would accelerate the development of new therapeutics that could be effective against a broad spectrum of cancers, not just those carrying mutations in the KRAS gene. 

“KRAS positive cancers have proven difficult to treat as they rapidly become resistant to traditional and targeted therapies. We believe that compounds targeting a specific sub-set of splicing may prove effective against a broad range of rapidly growing cancers, not just liver and lung cancer.” 

Microscope view of zebrafish larvae

 False coloured image of a zebrafish liver that was
 used to study development and cancer
 

The partnership builds on more than a decade of research by Associate Professor Heath, using zebrafish to identify genes essential for the rapid growth of the digestive organs during early development. 

Associate Professor Heath said collaborating with Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany to progress this research was an incredible boost for the project 

“To work with like-minded researchers at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany who share our curiosity in this splicing process is a fantastic opportunity to develop a novel class of cancer therapeutics and I am thoroughly looking forward to progressing this work.” 

“This collaboration will capitalise on WEHI’s pioneering work on the importance of minor splicing in a range of cancers with Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany’s drug discovery and development expertise. Together, we will work towards developing a novel class of therapeutics for patients with hard-to-treat cancers. I am delighted to be working with the team at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany on this endeavour.”  

Collaborative academic-industry partnership 

WEHI Head of Biotechnology and Commercialisation Dr Anne-Laure Puaux said the agreement established strong business foundations between the two organisations. 

“Academic-industry partnerships are critical to the successful translation of research discoveries into new therapeutics. This exciting new collaboration with Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany represents a significant translational opportunity for our Institute and our ground-breaking RNA splicing research.” Dr Puaux said. 

The four-year collaborative project will be conducted under the direction of a joint steering committee, leveraging existing capabilities and expertise within WEHI and Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany. Post collaboration, Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany will undertake clinical development, regulatory approvals, and commercial activities, while WEHI will receive milestone payments and royalties on sales. Financial terms of the collaboration remain undisclosed. 


Media enquiries 

M: +61 475 751 811 
E: communityrelations@wehi.edu.au 

First published on 06 April 2022
This article featured in Illuminate Newsletter Winter ‘22
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Senior Research Officer
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