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Harvard to work with Merck on leukemia therapy

Harvard University is teaming up with Merck & Co. to develop a treatment for leukemia and other cancers in what the school says could be the most important licensing and research deal struck by its technology transfer office.

Under an agreement disclosed on Monday, Merck will make a $20 million upfront payment to license technology developed in the Cambridge lab of Harvard scientist Matthew Shair. The work was backed by the four-year-old Blavatnik Biomedical Accelerator, which was established by the university’s Office of Technology Development to fund early-stage research at Harvard and outside laboratories.

The deal also calls for Harvard to be eligible for milestone payments from Merck if the drug candidate emerging from the research collaboration meets scientific and regulatory goals, and royalties from revenues if the drug is approved for sale.

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The parties didn’t disclose the ultimate value of the milestone payments and royalties, but Harvard’s chief technology development officer, Isaac T. Kohlberg, said the alliance has the potential to become the “most significant” to date for his technology transfer office.

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Harvard’s research focuses on acute myeloid leukemia, the most common form of acute leukemia.

“It’s a disease that has no cure,” Kohlberg said. “Fighting cancer is a major, major goal, and taking a project like this so far down the development path and reaching this agreement shows we are committed to bringing this drug forward to benefit patients.”

Scientists in Shair’s lab in Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, supported by biological studies done at contract research organizations, discovered a path toward blocking enzymes that can play a role in leukemia by altering the way genes are regulated.

The enzymes’ potential as cancer drug targets had not previously been recognized.

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The scientists also developed for clinical trials small-molecule drug candidates that can be taken orally.

Merck, based in Kenilworth, N.J., runs a research center in Boston’s Longwood Medical Area and a business development office in Cambridge. The company will be responsible for taking the program forward into clinical testing in partnership with Harvard.

“The reason that Merck wanted to work with us is that this [science] wasn’t on pharma’s radar,” said Curtis Keith, chief scientific officer at Blavatnik Biomedical Accelerator. “That’s what we bring to the table.”

In addition to licensing technology, the Blavatnik accelerator will be launching biopharma startups. Its first was Macrolide Pharmaceuticals Inc., a Newton company that is developing antibiotics.

The Harvard Office of Technology Development starts more than a dozen companies a year. Among the most prominent recent ones were Cambridge gene-editing pioneer Editas Medicine Inc. and Semma Therapeutics Inc., a Cambridge company that is developing stem-cell treatments for diabetes.

Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.