Merck, Weizmann Institute sign strategic deal on cancer research

Quietly, the German pharmaceutical and tech firm has emerged as a major international player in Israel

(Left to right) Amir Naiberg of Yeda Weizmann; Prof. Mudi Sheves of the Weizmann Institute; Stefan Oschmann of Merck; and Belén Garijo of Merck (Courtesy)
(Left to right) Amir Naiberg of Yeda Weizmann; Prof. Mudi Sheves of the Weizmann Institute; Stefan Oschmann of Merck; and Belén Garijo of Merck (Courtesy)

With more than 300 employees at four sites throughout Israel, Merck KgaA, a multifaceted chemical and technology company, has quietly emerged as one of the major multinational firms with a significant presence in Israel.

The company announced this week that it was furthering its stake in Israeli tech by signing a new framework agreement with the Weizmann Institute to research new solutions in the area of biotechnology and cancer research.

“We have focused our healthcare research activities on the highly promising fields of immuno-oncology, immunology and oncology, as we’re striving to deliver new solutions to respond to unmet medical needs,” said Stefan Oschmann, deputy CEO and vice chairman of the executive board of Merck. “We’re excited that the new framework agreement will cover the first two of these three areas, and we are already looking forward to the proposals of the distinguished Weizmann scientists.”

As part of the new framework agreement, Merck will fund each of the two research areas with up to € 1 million per year over the initial three-year period.

Merck (there are actually two separate companies called Merck; Merck KgaA, which operates everywhere except the US and Canada, where an independent company called Merck and Co. operates) is no stranger to the Weizmann Institute. Merck is best known for its drugs, but less well known is the strong connection the company — established in 1688 — has with Israel, where it has been active since 1978.

On a recent visit to Israel, Karl-Ludwig Kley, CEO of Merck KgaA, said that “15 percent of our products have an Israeli background, many of them researched at the Weizmann Institute. We have strong working relationships to develop products with all of Israel’s research institutes.

“Since I became CEO in 2007,” continued Kley, “I have made it a point to visit Israel each year to observe the research and to search for innovative ideas.”

Partnerships with Israeli companies and research institutions have resulted in some of Merck’s best products, continued Kley. Two of the company’s best-selling drugs — Rebif, used to treat multiple sclerosis; and cancer treatment Erbitux — were developed with the Weizmann Institute.

In addition to partnerships with Israeli institutions, Merck also runs a biotech incubator for early-stage firms, providing seed investments and other assistance to select companies. Through the incubator initiative, the Merck Serono Israel Bioincubator has 10 million euros available to invest in early-stage opportunities, said Kley.

The Bioincubator, which began operating in 2012, currently has three members — ChanBio, which is doing advanced work on antibody-based modulators for treatment of autoimmune, cardiovascular, cancer and pain disorders; Metabomed, which is working on developing cancer treatments based on cancer metabolism; and Neviah Genomics, which uses biomarkers for the prediction of drug toxicity.

“We are proud that such a fruitful relationship like the one we have with Merck has now been extended,” said Professor Mudi Sheves, the vice president of technology transfer of the Weizmann Institute. “We now have the chance to take part in creating new innovative solutions in such critical fields that so many patients globally are suffering from.”

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