Business & Tech

Boston’s Vertex licenses 4 cancer research programs

Boston, MA 11/20/2015 Ð The Vertex (Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc.) building at 50 Northern Ave in Boston, MA on November 20, 2015. (Globe staff photo / Craig F. Walker) section: Business reporter: Chesto Vertex
Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc., based in Boston’s Seaport District, sells two treatments for cystic fibrosis. (Globe staff photo / Craig F. Walker)

Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. will receive an upfront payment of $230 million from German drug maker Merck KGaA to license four of the Boston biotech’s cancer drug research programs.

The licensing deal, disclosed Wednesday, effectively turns over the research, development, and commercialization of Vertex’s entire cancer drug pipeline to Merck, which owns the US biotech EMD Serono in Rockland. If any of Vertex’s compounds are eventually approved as medicines, the company would also receive royalties amounting to a share of future sales.

Under the deal, Germany’s Merck, a separate company from the US pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., obtains the global rights to two experimental compounds being tested by Vertex in clinical trials to inhibit DNA repair pathways key to the proliferation of certain cancers. Merck will also take over a pair of Vertex preclinical cancer drug research programs.


“It’s a very strong strategic fit for us,” Merck’s global head of research and development Luciano Rossetti said. “To succeed in oncology, our company is focusing our efforts in specific areas we can drive, such as immuno-oncology and DNA damage and repair. These assets from Vertex perfectly complement our oncology efforts.”

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A spokeswoman said Vertex executives weren’t available for comment. The company stands to gain tiered royalties totaling up to 25 percent of sales for its clinical-stage cancer drug candidates and less than 10 percent for its preclinical cancer compounds.

Shares of Vertex were trading down about 1.4 percent early Wednesday afternoon.

Vertex, which sells two drugs to treat the lung disease cystic fibrosis, continues to develop additional cystic fibrosis treatments for patients with different genetic mutations of the ailment.

Its scientists are also working on treatments for pain and spinal cord injury. Earlier this week, in a presentation at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, executives said they are looking for ways to treat other conditions, ranging from sickle cell disease to polycystic kidney disease.


Vertex spokeswoman Heather Nichols said the licensing deal won’t result in job cuts because researchers working on the early-stage cancer drugs will be assigned to other programs.

While EMD Serono has been best known for drugs that treat multiple sclerosis and infertility, company executives last year said they are mounting a push into cancer therapies.

At the J.P. Morgan conference, the company announced a strategic collaboration with MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston aimed at advancing development of EMD Serono’s experimental drugs to treat breast and colorectal cancer, glioblastoma, and leukemia.

Robert Weisman can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.