A new collaboration aimed at improving on the current 95% failure rate in oncology drug development has been announced by the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, US and pharmaceutical mainstay Merck & Co.

The collaboration is with the Institute’s Center for Applied Cancer Science (CACS) and will involve genomic analyses to identify promising drug targets as well as therapeutic candidates based on those targets. Merck will provide upfront and research support funding to the CACS, plus milestone and royalty payments should any resulting compounds reach the market.

The Center will investigate drug targets using integrative and cross-species genomic analysis and stringent multi-level functional and clinicopathological validation testing. It will work together with Merck & Co on drug assay development to identify lead compounds, and subsequently on testing these compounds with CACS’s model systems, which closely replicate human disease.

The collaboration will also involve CACS faculty, under the direction of Dr James DeCaprio and Dr Kenneth Anderson, teaming up with scientists from Merck Research Laboratories to evaluate further tumour pathobiology and clinical outcomes, so that the tumor types most susceptible to candidate drugs can be better pinpointed.

The use of genomic information to identify therapeutic targets and appropriate clinical trial designs requires the integration of genomics with function, mechanism and, importantly, cancer biology, noted Dana-Farber’s Dr Lynda Chin, who will be the senior investigator in the CACS-Merck alliance. “By actively facilitating communication, this new agreement represents an important advance toward true team science between Dana-Farber and one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies,” Dr Chin said.

Dana-Farber set up the CACS in 2004. It is part of the Robert A. and Renée E. Belfer Institute for Innovative Cancer Science, which also houses the Arthur and Rochelle Belfer Center for Cancer Genomics.

The CACS team scientists and core laboratory facilities are dedicated to identifying genetic variations in cancers, isolating those most crucial to tumour formation and maintenance, validating these targets in a wide range of cell and tissue cultures assays and animal models, and, in the case of monoclonal antibodies, developing them into potential therapies. The Center retains the right to develop its antibodies independent of the Merck collaboration.