Serono teams with biotech in fertility trial: Will provide support for egg-freezing experiment

Jon Chesto

EMD Serono has teamed up with a Cambridge biotech company in an effort to develop a process to freeze human eggs for fertility treatments.

Shares of ViaCell Inc. rose more than 5 percent on Tuesday to close at $4.52 a share after the company disclosed the arrangement with Rockland-based EMD Serono, a division of German drug maker Merck KGaA.

EMD Serono has agreed to provide support for the clinical development of ViaCell’s ViaCyte, a product that allows for the cryopreservation of human eggs, or oocytes, for future fertility treatments. Both companies declined to disclose the financial terms of the agreement or the level of support that EMD Serono will provide.

EMD Serono has also agreed to provide its fertility drugs Gonal-F and Ovidrel to participants in the ViaCyte trial, which began in March.

‘‘Serono is clearly a leader in fertility health,’’ said Justine Koenigsberg, senior director of corporate communications for ViaCell. ‘‘Having them involved with the development of ViaCyte is of great value. It gives us support in the development of our trials as well as access to their knowledge and expertise in this area.’’

ViaCyte protects an egg during the freezing process. Because oocytes have a high water content, they are difficult to freeze and thaw at a later date.

About 300 women seeking fertilization treatments are expected to enroll in the study, which is slated to conclude in 2009. If the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves ViaCyte for commercial distribution, it could be sold to the public as early as 2010.

Three clinical sites are involved in the trial, Koenigsberg said. ViaCell, which is based in the Kendall Square area of Cambridge, expects to expand that number to eight. Boston IVF, a Boston-area provider of fertility services, is one of the three clinics that are participating, Koenigsberg said. The others are in Florida and Iowa.

ViaCell officials said there is no FDA-approved product for egg cryopreservation.

Fereydoun Firouz, president of EMD Serono, said in a prepared statement that cryopreservation has the potential to help shift reproductive medicine research from a focus on infertility to a focus on fertility preservation. ‘‘EMD Serono looks forward to collaborating with companies such as ViaCell to support advancements in reproductive medicine,’’ Firouz said.

Jon Chesto of The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Mass.) may be reached at jchesto@ledger.com.