Cancer pacts sizzle as developers start to team early on combos

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It's no secret that cancer is one of the hottest fields in drug development, with some 900 experimental cancer drugs in the pipeline. Even marginal gains in median survival rates can win FDA approval for advanced patients with little time and no treatment options on the table. And as the number of these experimental treatments continues to swell, you can expect to see a growing number of developers joining forces at an early stage on combo drugs.

"You don't kill cancer in only one way," Paolo Paoletti, president of GlaxoSmithKline's oncology division, tells the Wall Street Journal. That sentiment was echoed by Chris Bowden, VP of cancer drug development at Roche's Genentech. And it's no coincidence that Roche and Bristol-Myers Squibb helped trigger buzz about the cancer drug alliance trend with a new pact that will test the combined impact of two melanoma drugs. The two companies have done cutting-edge work in cancer--most recently involving ipilimumab and vemurafenib--and sat down weeks ago to work out the details of how they plan to collaborate on those two therapies.

"They were not talking about competing or how to place one drug above the other, but how to use them together," investigator Jedd Wolchok of Sloan-Kettering tells Reuters. "This trial has a very significant meaning, not just because it brings together the two most exciting drugs in melanoma in a very long time, but because the trial was planned by two big pharma companies before either drug was approved."

In a fresh sign of the pairing off now underway among Big Pharma rivals, Roche announced today that it will develop diagnostics for use with Merck's experimental cancer drugs. "Effective use of companion diagnostics is an important component of our oncology development strategy focused on targeted therapies," Gary Gilliland, Merck's head of oncology research, said in a statement.

Like hepatitis C and HIV, various cancers often respond better to multiple treatments instead of just one. And the FDA has been encouraging, releasing new rules on combo drug studies late last year.

Underlying the new emphasis on collaborations is the fresh focus these days on developing enough new treatments to change the way deadly cancers are treated. Instead of offering patients a few more months or even years of life, developers hope to create a generation of pharmaceuticals that can make even the most lethal cancers a manageable, chronic condition. They're starting out by delaying progress at every stage of the disease with the goal of eventually allowing patients to live a full life.

- here's the story from Reuters
- see the Wall Street Journal report
- here's Reuters story on the Merck/Roche pact

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