Harvard Medical School signs agreement with Merck to develop potential therapy for macular degeneration

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Harvard Medical School announced May 23, 2006 that is has signed a multimillion-dollar license agreement with Merck & Co. Inc. to develop potential therapies for macular degeneration, an eye disease that affects older people and can lead to blindness. The agreement provides Merck, through an affiliate, with licenses to specific molecules that could ultimately slow the production of toxic byproducts that form in the eye and that have been implicated in some forms of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and Stargardt disease, a juvenile form of blindness.

The agreement also establishes a research collaboration between Merck and Robert Rando, Ph.D., Harvard Medical School professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology, and provides Merck, through an affiliate, with exclusive rights to Rando’s intellectual property in this area.

Eight million people in the U.S. have the dry form of AMD, a condition for which neither definitive causes nor cures are known.

Studies on vision and AMD by Rando have recently culminated in the development of small molecule antagonists of the visual cycle that may protect against dry AMD and Stargardt disease.

Rando’s approach is to prevent toxic substances called lipofuscins from forming in the eye. “Lipofuscin accumulation appears to be a major risk factor for macular degeneration, including the age-related type,” Rando said. Toxic constituents of lipofuscin are generated as byproducts of the visual cycle, a complex chemical pathway that is required for the maintenance of the light-gathering components of the eye called retinal photoreceptors. The macula is the portion of the retina that is responsible for color and high acuity vision.