Acumen Pharmaceuticals Inc. signed a deal with Merck & Co. Inc. that could result in up to $96 million in milestone payments for Acumen and life-changing therapeutics for Alzheimer's disease patients.

"This deal validates our technology and begins a very significant collaboration that will result in drugs that prevent the onset of Alzheimer's, and in patients who are suffering from memory loss, it has the potential to restore cognitive function that has been lost," said David Summa, CEO of Acumen, which was founded in Chicago but has facilities in San Francisco.

The companies entered the agreement to research and develop disease-modifying therapeutic drugs for Alzheimer's disease and other memory-related disorders. Merck gains worldwide exclusive rights to Acumen's ADDL (amyloid-derived diffusible ligands) technology for monoclonal antibodies and vaccines. Merck also gains access to Acumen's diagnostic on ADDLs to accelerate the antibody program conducted with Acumen, as well as Merck's own small-molecule program.

Acumen will receive an up-front payment and annual research funding, as well as up to $48 million in research, development and approval milestones for the first antibody product that reaches the market. It also is entitled to the same amount, another $48 million, in milestones for the first marketed vaccine candidate. Merck, of Whitehouse Station, N.J., will fund research and development and will have exclusive responsibility for commercializing products. It will pay Acumen double-digit royalties, as well as sales milestones. Summa could not disclose more specific financial details.

"In our opinion this is a more significant deal than the Memory/Roche deal," Summa said. "And significant financially as well as scientifically."

In July 2002, Memory Pharmaceuticals Corp., of Montvale, N.J., and F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd., of Basel, Switzerland, signed a deal focused on Alzheimer's disease and depression valued at up to $150 million if two products were approved. (See BioWorld Today, July 31, 2002.)

ADDLs are soluble oligomeric assemblies of amyloid-beta 1-42 protein. They block essential information-storage pathways in nerve cells. Antibodies targeting ADDLs have prevented and reversed memory deficits in animal models.

Marketed drugs for Alzheimer's disease as of yet do not prevent the progression of the disease. "They provide important symptomatic relief, but they don't work forever," Summa told BioWorld Today.

Acumen was founded in 1996 by researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago and the University of Southern California, who discovered ADDLs and have worked for seven years to elucidate the ADDL mechanism and their direct involvement in Alzheimer's disease. ADDLs are elevated more than 70-fold in brains of Alzheimer's disease patients.

Acumen also is pursuing three small-molecule programs on its own.