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Harvard and Merck Team to Find Immuno-Oncology Targets


Check-point inhibitors and other immunotherapies have revolutionized the treatment of some cancers. But some patients do not respond at all – and others develop resistance to the drugs.

Now Harvard University and Merck experts are teaming up to discover the reason why, down to the molecule and gene.

The projected four-year undertaking will be led by Arlene Sharpe, M.D., PhD, of Harvard Medical School.

Widely known as a leader in the field of T-cell co-stimulation, including such immunotherapy targets as the CTLA-4 and PD-1 pathways,Sharpe said this work would potentially open new treatments and outcomes for patients.

“My hope is that be defining mechanisms that inhibit immune responses to tumors, we will identify very important druggable targets and new approaches to improve cancer immunotherapy,” said Sharpe.

The agreement stipulates Merck will have the option to negotiate an exclusive license to innovations arising from the collaboration, said Nick Haining, the vice president for oncology discovery at Merck Research Laboratories.

“Collaboration with leading scientific groups is an integral part of Merck’s discovery strategy,” said Haining.

Sharpe is a recipient of awards for her work, one of the most recent being the Warren Alpert Foundation Prize in 2017 for her contributions to the discovery of the PD-1 pathway.

Harvard officials said the potential breakthroughs could be “dramatic.”

“The complexity and promise of immuno-oncology presents a prime opportunity for Harvard’s top scientists to advance discovery through an academic-industry collaboration,” said Isaac Kohlberg, the chief technology development officer and senior associate provost of Harvard.

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