In June, Merck (Whitehouse Station, NJ) donated its natural products library to the Institute for Hepatitis and Virus Research (Doylestown, PA) along with a grant. The library is one of the more diverse in the world and consists of over 100,000 extracts. While I am not familiar with all the details of the arrangement, I do understand that the collection will be available to researchers around the world.
This should come as no surprise since the company stopped screening for natural product drugs a few years ago and shut down its discovery operation in Madrid (which exists independently as Fundacion MEDINA). Nevertheless, as a former Merck employee, it is like watching your childhood home get sold. At one point natural products were a big chunk of Merck’s revenue with Mevacor/Zocor being the flag-bearer.
Now it is up to several academic labs and small companies to keep “the dream alive.” Enabling technologies have advanced to the point that isolation and structural elucidation of natural products are no longer “warts.” While small research groups have done some wonderful things with natural products, they do not always have the biological targets to screen against that big pharma does.
I once read that natural product drugs were like aliens – you know they are out there but you just do not know where to find them. This could probably be said about drug discovery and development in general.
About Neal Connors
Dr. Neal Connors is currently the owner/president of Phoenix BioConsulting, LLC (www.phoenixbioconsulting.com); a company providing consulting services to the fermentation, industrial microbiology, biotechnology, and legal sectors.