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May 8, 2008
Merck Bails on Natural Products
Every few years, you hear talk of a renaissance in natural products-based drug discovery. Well, this news should postpone the next round of optimism for a bit longer: Merck is cutting their natural products program entirely. They've had a long history in that area, but no more. That C&E News item includes an interesting detail:
"The company disclosed that it would also be closing its 50-year-old natural products drug discovery operation based in Madrid after a Merck executive inadvertently included the plan in a PowerPoint presentation to an audience that included Merck employees."
Smooth move. I'm sure some interesting e-mails were exchanged around Rahway and Madrid after that one. When, when will we get the powerful regulatory oversight of PowerPoint technology that the masses have cried out for these many years?
The main thing I remember about Merck's operation in Madrid was when they made a big splash about ten years ago with a weird looking indole/quinone thing that directly activated the insulin receptor. It made the cover of Science and all sorts of press releases, and my biology colleagues starting pestering me immediately. "Hey, you chemists keep saying that there's no point in running a small-molecule screen against the insulin receptor!"
Well, as it turned out, we were right. I assured my co-workers on the next floor that the Merck compound was one of the least likely drug candidate structures I'd ever seen, and that I'd be intensely surprised if it went anywhere. In fact, I told them, seeing it on the cover of Science actually decreased the likelihood that it was anything useful. If Merck really had a small-molecule insulin mimetic, I reasoned, the program would be a real stealth bomber, for fear of sending all sorts of other companies into the same chemical space too quickly. This one had all the signs of the people involved saying "You know, the only thing this stuff is good for is getting on the cover of Science"
So it proved, eventually. The compounds never went anywhere. It looks like the most recent natural product-derived compound that Merck got onto the market was Cancidas (caspofungin), and that was seven years ago. Mevacor (lovastatin) will stand as the modern high-water mark of Merck's natural product work - presumably from now on.
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