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Discovery on demand
GENEVAŚMerck Serono, a division of Merck KGaA, and Compugen Ltd. recently announced the establishment of Neviah Genomics, a novel startup company that will focus on discovering and developing novel biomarkers for the prediction of drug-induced toxicity. The agreement comes on the heels of a 2009 collaboration between the companies for the discovery of "biomarker signatures" for drug-induced toxicity.
"Following our prior successful collaboration with Merck Serono, we are very pleased to expand this relationship and enter into this new and exciting partnership. We are honored to be the first Israeli company to benefit from the establishment of Merck Serono's Israel Bioincubator and look forward to taking our partnership to the next level," Dr. Anat Cohen-Dayag, president and CEO of Compugen, said in a press release. "Furthermore, the formation of Neviah Genomics on a 'discovery-on-demand' basis enables Compugen to both continue its focus on therapeutic monoclonal antibodies and therapeutic proteins in the fields of immunology and oncology, and provide potential future benefits for our shareholders from our equity interest in Neviah and royalties from future product sales."
Neviah Genomics will be operating out of the Merck Serono Israel Bioincubator and is the first company funded by the program. Merck Serono will be responsible for providing initial funding for Neviah Genomics, while Compugen will employ proprietary predictive discovery technologies and receive an equity ownership in the company as well as a right to royalties on future sales. Specific financial details were not disclosed.
"Neviah's mission is to become a state-of-the-art provider of toxicogenomic solutions for pharma and biotech companies that are looking to minimize attrition for their preclinical candidate drug and therapeutic leads," says Simone Botti, head of Merck's Israel Bioincubator Fund and acting CEO of Neviah Genomics. "There is a very big unmet need for a fast and efficient system that allows you to easily identify candidates that might have significant toxic effects. Neviah is going to develop products that will enable clients to test their own drugs."
Botti adds that Neviah Genomics' current focus is hepatotoxicity, "because it is one of the main causes of termination of early development of a molecule." Eventually, the company might also expand into other fields such as cardiotoxicity. According to Botti, Compugen stood out as a potential partner due to its technology and the companies' previous business relationship.
"We knew that Compugen could bring its own computational prowess to support the project," says Botti. "The fact that Compugen had proved themselves on an earlier biomarker collaboration that we had was also a factor in the decision, and as a matter of fact, the strong relationship and confidence that was built from a previous project certainly allowed us to accelerate the Neviah deal."
The new start-up will benefit from the use of Compugen's computational discovery platforms, Cohen-Dayag says, in the search for biomarker signatures for drug-induced toxicity. Those signatures will then be used to develop toxicogenomic diagnostic tests, for which Cohen-Dayag notes there is a growing market need, and the resulting diagnostic tests will be used to predict drug-induced toxicity and integrated into a biomarker platform in order to help prioritize and develop drug candidates.
Merck Serono launched the Merck Serono Israel Bioincubator Fund in 2011 as part of Merck Serono Ventures, with the aim of promoting innovation by enhancing connections between academic research and the biotechnology industry in Israel. The fund provides seed funding and access to state-of-the-art laboratory facilities within Inter-Lab, Merck Serono's Israeli research and development center, out of which Neviah Genomics will operate. The company has earmarked a total of approximately $12.1 million for the Bioincubator initiative, and according to Botti, expects to invest in eight to 10 companies.
"Neviah Genomics is a perfect illustration of our goals behind the establishment of the Israel Biotech Incubator: to leverage Israeli science and know-how and get access to novel products and technologies for the benefit of Merck Serono's core therapeutic areas," Susan Herbert, executive vice president of global business development and strategy at Merck Serono, said in a press release. "In this regard, we are delighted to be collaborating on our first investment with Compugen, one of the premier biotech companies in Israel and a world- leading predictive drug discovery company. We believe that our joint technology and resources represent a unique basis for a startup to enter this emerging field that has the potential to significantly reduce the risk of drug discovery and development."