Drug maker Merck & Co., Inc. places Israel on its ‘will-invest’ list

Merck plans to interview more than 20 Israeli companies for possible joint ventures in pharmaceutical research.Advances in Israeli biotech and drug development have persuaded management at U.S. pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., Inc. of Whitehouse Station, N.J., to add Israel …

Merck plans to interview more than 20 Israeli companies for possible joint ventures in pharmaceutical research.Advances in Israeli biotech and drug development have persuaded management at U.S. pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., Inc. of Whitehouse Station, N.J., to add Israel to the list of countries in which it would like to invest.

“We are actively seeking opportunities, approaching (Israeli) companies and asking them to submit proposals to us,” said Dr. Yael Cohen, medical director of Merck’s Israel subsidiary MSD-Israel. “We recognize the high potential here.”

Merck has asked companies and universities to apply for research collaborations with the intent to develop therapies in such areas as the central nervous system, immunology, cancer research, diabetes, and osteoporosis.

Merck held a conference in Israel in May to explain its research focus, present the products it has in the pipeline and explain possible collaboration models. Following the meeting, participants made about 150 proposals to Merck which the company is reviewing both in Israel and in the United States.

Thirteen of the proposals made to Merck led to meetings in June and several are being evaluated further for possible collaboration, Cohen said. An additional 10 companies are scheduled for interviews in September.

Following the first round of meetings, Dr. Lewis Mandel of Merck Research Laboratories, said that he found the Israeli scientists that he met to be “at the forefront of basic science and hopefully its ultimate translation into new project and product opportunities.”

Mandel is leading Merck’s outreach initiative in countries believed to show promise in new drug discovery, including Australia, China, Korea, Russia, and Taiwan, as well as Israel. Merck, which has defined itself as a research-oriented company, hopes the program will help it expand its research.

Israeli researchers will benefit from collaborating with Merck, whose extensive experience with regulatory issues and well-synchronized clinical research infrastructure can ease them through clinical trials, Cohen said.

“Clinical development is a unique expertise and larger pharmaceutical companies have it,” he said. “We believe that agreements between Israeli researchers and Merck will produce a track record of discovering and developing new drugs, a win-win situation.”

It isn’t just the know-how that could jumpstart Israeli technologies, Merck also has the money to finance the research. The company has a research budget of $2.9 billion and it has not set a limit on its Israeli investment, preferring instead to find the right research idea and then putting whatever it takes into its development.

“Israeli initiatives are competing with initiatives all over the world as well as with those being developed (within the company),” Cohen said.

But, some skeptics think Israeli patent laws may hinder the entrance of pharmaceutical giants such as Merck into Israeli research. These laws fail to meet European and U.S. standards, allowing generic drug companies to start developing a generic substitute even before a patent has expired, she said.

As a result, Israel’s intellectual property treaties are more like those of Third World nations, such as Tanzania, than the United States or European nations, Cohen said.