German Merck, Vaccinex ink lung cancer anti-PD-L1 combo trial deal

The word in cancer right now is combination, and Merck KGaA, coming in the same week it opened a new life science R&D collab center in Korea, is joining forces in the lab with Vaccinex to see if together their investigational meds can help patients with lung cancer live longer.

Money terms were not given, but the two said in a joint statement that they will combine avelumab, Merck’s PD-L1 candidate that is being co-developed with Pfizer ($PFE), and NY-based Vaccinex’ experimental anti-semaphorin 4D IgG4 mAb VX15/2503.

The target will be non-small cell lung cancer patients who have not been treated with an immunotherapy. Timelines were not provided, but the Phase Ib/II test will be run by Vaccinex.

VX15/2503, an early-stage candidate, is also being tested outside of oncology, and last year the biotech posted data from a small Phase I study in MS patients and then in August, the med gained an orphan drug tag from the FDA as it undergoes Phase II trials in Huntingdon’s disease.

Outside of neurodegenerative diseases, and in preclinical studies, anti-semaphorin 4D antibodies have been shown to “increase infiltration of tumoricidal immune cells while simultaneously reducing multiple types of immunosuppressive cells in tumors,” according to the biotech.

Anti-semaphorin 4D antibody was also found to synergize with a checkpoint inhibitor antibody to promote tumor eradication, it added--hence the desire to team up with Merck and its PD-L1 candidate.

German Merck has recently gone after non-small lung cancer but did not come off well, having back in 2014 to ditch its Stimuvax (a.k.a tecemotide) lung cancer vaccine after it produced a set of weak results.

Pfizer and Merck KGaA are some way off rivals Merck ($MRK) and Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY), who lead the checkpoint pack with a pair of immunotherapies already approved for several indications, including melanoma and NSCLC.

Just behind them are Roche ($RHHBY), which this year gained FDA approval for its PD-L1-targeting atezolizumab, with AstraZeneca ($AZN) poised to be next in-line with its Phase III durvalumab.

Merck KGaA will likely then be fifth (although Astra has had some setbacks in the clinic of late), with its healthcare chief Belén Garijo saying recently that the antibody could be among the first checkpoint blockers approved for Merkel cell carcinoma, as well as a host of other oncology licenses not yet catered for by those on the market.

It would also be the company’s biggest marketed new med in around a decade, coming after a string of failures and problems in the lab have pegged back its pipeline ambitions.

All of these companies have also teamed up with a variety of other marketed and experimental cancer medicines, ranging from cancer vaccines to tyrosine kinase inhibitors, in an effort to boost overall efficacy of treatment, and help spur the immune system to attack tumors.