EPFL researcher among Merck Innovation Cup winners

Xavier Pierrat with the Merck Innovation trophy and certificate. Credit: EPFL

Xavier Pierrat with the Merck Innovation trophy and certificate. Credit: EPFL

A team of international researchers, including EPFL, have won the Merck Innovation Cup for their drug-discovery innovation project.

The Merck Innovation Cup is an annual, international competition between teams of PhD students and postdocs developing innovative projects that nurture new business ideas for unmet medical needs and drug discovery technologies. The winning team is awarded 20,000 euros, as well as the chance of their idea being taken up for further development by Merck.

This year the Cup has been awarded to a team of seven researchers including Xavier Pierrat, a PhD candidate at EPFL’s School of Life Sciences. The team is composed of scientists from the universties of Stanford, Cambridge, California, Berkeley, Aarhus, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the Francis Crick Institute.

The team’s winning project includes a new way to degrade proteins, which can lead to the development of new drugs. Protein degradation currently relies on PROTACs (PROteolysis TArgeting Chimeras), which are molecules that can selectively bind and degrade a particular protein. PROTACs are under intense research as they can be used as effective anti-cancer drugs.

The winning team celebrated via Microsoft Teams. Credit: X. Pierrat (EPFL)

The winning team proposed a new protein degrader that they claim works better than current PROTACs and can target proteins that have so far been beyond their reach. They have also imagined a new screening platform to identify new compounds that can work as the protein degrader, thereby hoping to speed up the process of drug discovery within Merck's laboratories.

“I enjoyed the availability and enthusiasm of Merck’s expert who helped us develop and mature our idea,” says Xavier Pierrat. “We had a superb level of interaction with academics and Merck’s employees for an entire week; this was not just an abstract exercise but a concrete project proposal, and Merck might be willing to hire some of our team members and invest 200,000 to 500,000 euros into our project.”

Xavier Pierrat works in the lab of Alexandre Persat at EPFL’s Global Health Institute and Institute of Bioengineering within the School of Life Sciences.