Syndax aligns with Merck KGaA and Pfizer on an immuno-oncology combo project

Syndax CEO Briggs Morrison

Privately held Syndax Pharmaceuticals is pairing its breakthrough-designated cancer drug with an in-development immunotherapy from Merck KGaA and Pfizer ($PFE), hoping to hit upon a winning clinical combination.

Syndax's drug, entinostat, is an oral treatment the company said could enhance the immune system's response to tumors, while Merck KGaA and Pfizer's avelumab is an injected antibody meant to unblind T cells to cancerous material in the body. The two parties plan to combine their therapies in a Phase Ib/II trial in ovarian cancer, planning to enter late-stage development if the results are positive. None of the companies is disclosing financial details.

The partnership caps an eventful 12 months for Syndax, which lured former AstraZeneca ($AZN) R&D boss Briggs Morrison to lead as CEO last year and signed deals to pair entinostat with Roche's ($RHHBY) cancer immunotherapy atezolizumab and Merck's ($MRK) similar Keytruda. Syndax's drug is in the midst of a Phase III trial in advanced, HR-positive breast cancer, for which it received the FDA's breakthrough therapy designation in 2013.

As for Merck KGaA and Pfizer, the partners are bringing up the rear in the race to cash in on the potential of so-called checkpoint inhibitors, trailing Keytruda and Bristol-Myers Squibb's ($BMY) Opdivo, which are already on the market, as well as Roche's atezolizumab and a rival candidate from AstraZeneca.

Pfizer bought into the Merck KGaA-invented avelumab, formerly MSB0010718C, in a nearly $3 billion deal in 2014, and the partners have since vowed to catch up to their more advanced rivals by homing in on underserved cancers. They've identified the rare Merkel cell carcinoma, or MCC, as an ideal initial target and are moving forward in that disease with the FDA's breakthrough designation. The pair also developing the treatment for ovarian, gastric, bladder and lung cancers, hoping to win a first approval next year.

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