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BYU and Merck announce licensing agreement for COX-3, other biotechnologies

Brigham Young University today announced an agreement to license patent-pending biotechnology to pharmaceutical firm Merck & Co. Inc., which has also agreed to fund further research by BYU biochemistry professor Daniel Simmons.

Simmons announced last fall the discovery of COX-3, an enzyme that may play an important role in pain and fever. Merck agreed to pay BYU royalties on certain future products that may arise under the research program with Simmons. Specific terms of the agreement were not disclosed.

"One of Merck's strengths is the discovery of therapeutic molecules that target novel and important biological mechanisms, such as COX-2, which resulted in the new drugs Vioxx and Arcoxia," said Don Nicholson, Ph.D., head of pharmacology, biochemistry and molecular biology at Merck's research facility in Montreal, Canada. "We are pleased to be collaborating with Dr. Simmons in this important medical arena."

Simmons said he believes Merck's financial support and opportunities to work with its scientists will allow him and his students to focus on furthering their recent discoveries.

"It's important to see our results eventually move out of the lab and into the marketplace, where they can affect the lives of regular people," he said.

Simmons' wife Trudy, who suffers from arthritis, has benefited from recent pain-killing drugs that were developed based on her husband's scientific research a decade ago.

Scientists did not know until 1971 that aspirin works by inhibiting an enzyme called cyclooxygenase (COX), a discovery that earned British scientist John Vane a Nobel Prize for medicine in 1982. In 1991, Simmons' lab reported that there are actually two COX enzymes (PNAS, April 1991, 88:2692-2696). COX-2 is the culprit responsible for fever, inflammation and some pain, while COX-1 has the positive effect of protecting the gastrointestinal tract.

COX-2 selective inhibitors, like Merck's Vioxx and Arcoxia, are effective because, although they neutralize COX-2 and its negative effects, they do not inhibit COX-1, sparing chronic-pain sufferers the disabling stomach ulcers caused by long-term use of aspirin-like drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen.

Acetaminophen is a member of a different class of drugs that relieves pain and fever, but not inflammation, and is a very poor inhibitor of COX-1 or COX-2. The discovery of new COX variations may shed light on how acetaminophen and related drugs work, opening the door to improvements on these existing therapeutics. Simmons and his research team, including two members who were BYU undergraduates at the time of the research, also recently reported the discovery of two proteins, which he calls partial COX-1 or PCOX-1 proteins, that appear to be related to the COX enzymes but whose functions remain unclear. These proteins are also covered by BYU's extensive patent applications and are included in the university's agreement with Merck.

BYU was recognized last summer as the best university in the nation at turning research dollars into inventions and new companies. The July 19 issue of the "Chronicle of Higher Education" also noted that BYU ranks third among American universities at earning income from inventions relative to research spending. The university generally passes on about half of this income to the inventing professors and puts the rest into licensing costs and further research in the professors' colleges.

"We're proud of Dr. Simmons and his students and excited about our new agreement with Merck, a global leader in the pharmaceutical industry," said Merrill J. Bateman, BYU president. "Merck's licensing of Dr. Simmons' work is an important step forward in the advance of knowledge."

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