Merck & Co. plans to develop a new class of pain treatments using technology developed by Peter McNaughton, FMedSci, of King’s College London, through a collaboration that could generate more than $344 million for the college and a funding partner in his research, Wellcome Trust.

McNaughton’s lab at the Wolfson Centre for Age-Related Diseases, part of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s, has uncovered a fundamental biological mechanism underlying neuropathic pain. The discovery has built on a 2011 study in Science, published while McNaughton was at the University of Cambridge, in which he and colleagues identified the importance of the protein hyperpolarization-activated cyclic nucleotide–gated 2 (HCN2) in chronic pain.

HCN2 can cause a continuous sensation of pain through the initiation of electrical signals in pain-sensitive nerve fibers. In a 2017 study published in Science Translational Medicine, McNaughton and colleagues showed that blocking the activity of HCN2 in animal models can deliver effective pain relief without side effects.

Merck and King’s aim to apply McNaughton’s research toward developing new medications for chronic neuropathic pain caused by nerve damage from traumatic injury or illness.

“Most pain drugs have been developed from traditional remedies or by repurposing existing medications and in general are not very effective at controlling chronic pain,” McNaughton said Friday in a statement. “By targeting the molecular causes of pain we have developed new molecules that we believe can avoid the major side effects that come with current painkillers.”

Wellcome Trust has provided £4.5 million ($5.9 million) in funding since 2012 to develop McNaughton’s work towards candidate drug compounds for blocking HCN2.

Potential new approach

Daniel Gill, PhD, business development analyst at Wellcome Trust, said McNaughton’s discovery has opened a potential new approach to developing pain treatments.

“We’re delighted that this Wellcome-funded work has reached the next stage of its development,” Gill stated. “We hope that bringing together world-leading pain researchers with the pharmaceutical company MSD, who have an excellent track record for bringing innovative new treatments to patients, will be a turning point in tackling chronic pain.”

Under their collaboration and license agreement, Merck (known as MSD in the U.K.) agreed to pay King’s and Wellcome up to £263 million ($344.4 million) in development and sales milestones, as well as royalties tied to a drug reaching the market.

MSD will be responsible for conducting lead optimization, preclinical development and clinical trials. MSD also agreed to fund the McNaughton lab for further research on the biological mechanisms of pain.

“The deal with MSD gives our research the best chance of being translated into medications that will have a real impact on patient’s lives,” added Sir Robert Lechler, MB ChB, PhD, FRCP, FRCPath, FMedSci, senior vice president/provost (Health) at King’s and executive director of King’s Health Partners. “We are particularly pleased that King’s researchers will continue to collaborate with MSD on developing solutions for chronic pain, an area of huge unmet clinical need.”

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