Secondment and collaboration agreement boosts drug discovery research

08 September 2021
An innovative partnership between WEHI and global biopharmaceutical company MSD is advancing research towards new medicines, and upskilling the Australian medical research workforce.
Smiling researcher in front of sign saying "Merck"
WEHI chemical biologist Dr Christoph Grohmann has been
seconded to MSD’s Research Laboratories to advance a promising
research project, as part of a three-year exchange program.

WEHI and MSD – also known as Merck & Co Inc., based in Kenilworth NJ USA – have established a three-year exchange program whereby WEHI researchers can be seconded to MSD’s Research Laboratories in South San Francisco, US, to advance promising chemical biology research towards new medicines. The agreement brings together WEHI’s broad suite of research specialities – in cancer, immune and infectious diseases, developmental disorders and age-related conditions – with MSD’s expertise in cutting-edge drug discovery and drug development.

The first secondment has commenced this year, with WEHI chemical biologist Dr Christoph Grohmann using the latest technology at MSD’s Research Laboratories to progress WEHI’s research into potential new cancer therapeutic drug candidates.

At a glance

  • WEHI and MSD have developed an innovative secondment and collaboration agreement, enabling WEHI researchers to advance promising drug discovery projects by accessing MSD’s cutting-edge research facilities and working collaboratively with MSD scientists.
  • The first secondment sees chemical biologist Dr Christoph Grohmann progressing WEHI’s promising discovery of potential anti-cancer compounds.

Advancing drug development

Smiling researcher in front of sign saying "Merck"
Dr Grohmann is investigating a potential new anti-cancer
agent as part of his secondment to MSD’s Research Laboratories.

The discovery and development of new medicines is a complex process, with many steps before a drug candidate can be tested in pre-clinical and, ultimately, clinical trials, said Professor Guillaume Lessene, head of WEHI’s New Medicine and Advanced Technologies theme.

“More than a decade ago, WEHI’s chemical biologists discovered a compound that showed selective toxicity to cancer cells,” he said. “This was an exciting property, which suggested this compound may form the basis of a potential new anti-cancer medicine, but it wasn’t clear how the compound functioned within cells.”

An extensive body of work, led by Dr Grohmann, has used a range of approaches to investigate the compound’s mode of action, and to develop derivative compounds with more optimal drug-like properties.

Dr Grohmann said his secondment would enable him to understand how this compound works – a critical step for it to be considered for progression to the clinic.

“By being able to access the latest technologies at MSD, I hope to solve the puzzle of how this compound works – thus opening new opportunities for pursuing this discovery-stage project towards potential new anti-cancer medicines.” he said.

The secondment offers Dr Grohmann the opportunity to develop new skills.

“It’s fantastic to be working within an industrial drug discovery facility, and to learn about the approaches to drug development that are beyond the scope of academic research organisations. I’m really excited that I will bring my research expertise to MSD and bring back some new approaches to WEHI after the secondment. Understanding the mode of action of potential drugs is a critical step in many drug discovery projects, so I hope the skills I am learning can be applied to advance research into a range of diseases at WEHI,” Dr Grohmann said.

Mutual benefits

The deal struck between WEHI and MSD will run for three years, enabling up to three WEHI scientists to attend MSD’s Research Laboratories. Under the agreement, MSD has gained an exclusive option to license WEHI’s intellectual property. The terms of the agreements have been specifically designed for this project and are fit-for-purpose while bringing great value to both MSD and WEHI.

Dr John Flygare, Principal Investigator at MSD, said WEHI is a great collaborator for MSD due to its complementary skillset.

“WEHI has a long history of pursuing impactful medical research, and we’ve seen several groundbreaking discoveries from WEHI laboratories translated into important new therapies. The National Drug Discovery Centre at WEHI, and the associated medicinal chemistry and biology expertise mean WEHI is well-placed to continue to discover potential new therapies” he said.

“The agreement between MSD and WEHI means that we will see more of these discoveries progressed towards potential new medicines. Negotiating this innovative deal with WEHI has been a great experience given their track record in designing, negotiating and closing innovative early-stage business development deals with the pharmaceutical industry.”

Dr Anne-Laure Puaux, head of Biotechnology and Commercialisation at WEHI, said MSD and WEHI shared a goal of improving human health, and the secondment and collaboration deal was an important way this could be achieved.

“This is a unique opportunity for Australian medicinal chemists to access a range of specialist technologies not generally available to an academic research organisation, and to bring this knowledge back to Australia. In addition, this collaboration is really exciting, and working with MSD will help us advance this early stage program closer to a drug candidate,” she said.

The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council and the Victorian Government provided early stage funding support to the research underpinning the project being undertaken by Dr Grohmann at MSD.

Media inquiries

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

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