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Merck Gift Boosts Biology Research

Gift to Harvard department will fund new genomics experiments

By Jeremy B. Reff, Contributing Writer

Pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. announced a $1 million gift to the Harvard’s Molecular and Cellular Biology Department (MCB) last week.

The gift—which represents a strengthening of Harvard’s already-existing ties to Merck—will be channelled into more experimental projects in the department which otherwise might not get funded, professors say.

According to the terms of the gift, much of the funding will be used for genomics research, the study of the DNA blueprint of an organism.

Over the next five years, the Merck gift will fund three separate research initiatives.

One initiative funded by the gift, the Merck Pilot Research Program, will focus on funding “risky” research in genomics—novel projects on the edge of the field.

The gift will also fund a summer course in genomics, as well as support for two postdoctoral fellows in the department.

Several Harvard officials stress that Merck will have minimal oversight of the use of the $1 million, since it is a gift and not a contract or grant—donations over which benefactors have more strict control.

According to Dean Gallant, assistant dean for research policy and administration for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), “a gift is a gift, no strings attached.”

The gift will be administered by a committee of six: two FAS Professors, two members of the Medical School faculty, and two non-voting Merck representatives.

In 1999, responding to calls from Harvard’s two highest governing boards for greater investment in science, former Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles announced plans for the interdisciplinary Bauer Center for Genomics Research.

Bauer, which opened last year, will be directly impacted by the gift, according to the Center’s director, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Andrew W. Murray.

Murray said the Merck gift will allow research to proceed that might not have been funded under more conservative funding programs.

Often, scientists can only get funding for projects that already have experimental data to back them up, he said.

“The Pilot Research Program enables scientists to…test purely theoretical ideas without having to pay attention to what’s in the experimental notebook,” Murray said.

While professors look at the gift as a boon to the department, Merck officials say they, too, have something to gain by freeing researchers to do more experimental research.

“I think that the [Bauer Center] is an excellent conception,” said Mervyn J. Turner, senior vice president at Merck Research Laboratories. “By funding it, we’d be providing some seed money to trigger these new areas of fundamental research in the biological sciences.”

Turner, who negotiated the terms of the gift with the chair of the MCB Department, said that Merck will not have any licensing claims over the research produced using the gift.

“We thought it would encumber the relationship [with MCB] if we insisted on the [intellectual property] connection, especially as this is very early stage research, a long way from true medical applications,” he said.

The gift to MCB is the latest in a long line of Merck-funded initiatives at Harvard.

Merck is currently building a new laboratory adjacent to the Medical School in Boston, and funding several projects with FAS and the Medical School.

Murray himself is also a consultant for Merck.

Murray said that the traditional contractual structure of academic-industrial collaboration had a “chilling” effect on the openness of scientific research and represented a “poor return on investment for industry.”

The MCB’s chair, Baird Professor of Science Andrew P. McMahon, agreed. “This precedent by Merck demonstrates the mutual benefit of collaboration between private industry and academic research, and will encourage other corporate allies to consider this enlightened approach,” McMahon said in a press release.

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