BYU Signs Deal With Drug Maker Merck

Brigham Young University on Monday capped its recent milestone research identifying biochemical triggers for pain and fever by signing a potentially lucrative deal with Merck & Co. Inc.


The Provo school’s pact with the global pharmaceutical giant stems from BYU biochemistry professor Daniel Simmons’ discovery in October of COX-3. The enzyme may be key to unlocking the long-baffling mystery of how acetaminophen — the drug sold in "aspirin-free" pain relievers such as Tylenol — works.

Specific terms were not disclosed. However, the LDS Church-owned school confirmed the deal provides the university future royalties in return for licenses on patent-pending biotechnology. Merck also agreed to fund the next 2 1/2 years of Simmons’ research.

"It is important to see our results eventually move out of the lab and into the marketplace, where they can affect the lives of regular people," Simmons said.

By understanding how acetaminophen apparently inhibits COX-3, researchers hope to design better remedies for the kinds of pain the drug has relieved.

Such was the case in 1991, after Simmons and his colleagues discovered the COX-2 enzyme, leading to a new generation of drugs that relieved pain without the stomach-churning side effects of regular aspirin.

The professor’s interest in pain relief extends beyond the lab; his wife, Trudy, suffers from arthritis and has benefited from using new drugs developed since her husband’s findings more than a decade ago.

"One of Merck’s strengths is the discovery of therapeutic molecules that target novel and important biological mechanisms, such as COX-2, which resulted in the new drugs Vioxx and Arcoxia," said Don Nicholson, head of pharmacology, biochemistry and molecular biology for Merck in Montreal.

It was not until 1971 that scientists learned aspirin relieved headaches by inhibiting what was later called COX-1. Discovery of the first of the cyclooxygenase enzymes won British researcher John Vane the 1982 Nobel Prize in medicine.

About nine years later, Simmons found COX-2, the enzyme to blame for fever, inflammation and some associated pain.

In addition to last fall’s COX-3 discovery, Simmons and his research team also recently reported discovery of two proteins — categorized as PCOX-1, or "partial COX-1" — that could be related in a yet-to-be-determined way to the COX enzymes.

Those new proteins are also covered by BYU’s patent applications and are included in its agreement with Merck, said the school’s technology transfer director, Lynn Astle.

He said BYU did not make similar deals relating to Simmons’ discovery in 1991, a time when such considerations were more rare. In retrospect, though, the school missed out on what would have been a fortune in potential royalties.

This time, the school was ready to exercise its rights. While mum on specific dollar figures involved, Astle acknowledged the deal could be lucrative indeed if it leads to drug developments like those coming from the COX-2 research.

"Dr. Simmons is certainly one of our stars here, and he is shining very brightly," he said.

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