By Debbie Strickland

Genzyme Corp.'s Molecular Oncology division (GMO) signed a screening technology deal potentially worth in excess of $8 million with Merck & Co.

Merck, of Whitehouse Station, N.J., gains nonexclusive rights to methods of screening small molecules for action against the MDM2 protein. When MDM2 binds to the p53 protein, it prevents p53 from activating genes that control cell division. Merck will seek to identify compounds that inhibit this binding, thus keeping p53 free to do its tumor-suppressing duty.

On its own and in collaboration with Slough, U.K.-based Xenova Ltd., GMO already has identified compounds that appear to block the undesirable interaction between MDM2 and p53, and is using combinatorial chemistry approaches to identify other compounds that block the interaction between the two.

Under terms of the deal, GMO will receive an undisclosed up-front payment and up to $8 million in milestones, plus royalties on sales of any therapeutics that result from use of the assay methods.

MDM2 Linked To Many Cancers

According to the companies, elevated levels of MDM2 have been found in a variety of cancers, including leukemias, sarcomas, and neural, bladder, renal and breast cancers.

Based in Framingham, Mass., GMO was formed in February 1997 following Genzyme Corp.'s acquisition of Allendale, N.J.-based PharmaGenics Inc. Less than three months later, Genzyme, of Cambridge, Mass., filed for a $35 million initial public offering (IPO) for GMO, which is pursuing cancer therapies through genomics, gene therapy and combinatorial chemistry.

The division has been seeking collaborators in hopes of blowing off the dust and completing the IPO, whose time line remains murky.

"It hasn't happened yet, and I don't know when it's going to," said Scott Gregg, Genzyme spokesman.

GMO last month brought on board Schering-Plough Corp., which signed an $80 million p53 gene-delivery deal. (See BioWorld Today, Jan. 6, 1998, p. 1.)

In November, the division signed Warner-Lambert Co., of Morris Plains, N.J., in an up-to-$9 million deal granting an option for nonexclusive use of GMO's Serial Analysis of Gene Expression (SAGE) technology.

Merck joins five other companies pursuing small-molecule-oriented research and development with GMO. *