GSK's $4.2B bet on Merck KGaA's cancer drug goes up in smoke as pharmas cut ties after series of flops

Merck KGaA and GlaxoSmithKline are ending a partnership for the oncology asset bintrafusp alfa which could have netted billions for the German pharma if successful.

But the data just didn’t pan out that way in multiple tests, most recently a phase 2 clinical trial in locally advanced or metastatic biliary tract cancer that was discontinued due to futility.

The companies announced their mutual parting effective today, September 30. Merck said the decision was “based on the clinical trial data generated to date,” specifically results from the INTR@PID Lung 037 study that failed to show the effect seen in earlier tests.

GSK did not pay out any milestone payments through the deal and will not do so in the future, either. Merck collected €300 million upfront in 2019 through the pact, with an additional €500 million in milestones and €2.9 billion in sales possible down the line.

RELATED: Merck KGaA's $4.2B bintrafusp alfa nabs a 3rd strike. Is the GSK-partnered cancer hopeful out?

So what does Merck do with bintrafusp alfa now? The therapy was once heralded as a future competitor to the mega-blockbuster Keytruda sold by U.S. competitor Merck & Co.

Merck KGaA said the company will use “advanced analytics” to comb through the vast data collected through the INTR@PID clinical program and better understand what happened—and how learnings can be applied to the field of immunotherapy.

The drug is a bifunctional immunotherapy designed to combine a TGF-β trap with the anti-PD-L1 mechanism in one fusion protein. In plain English, bintrafusp alfa was supposed to control tumor growth by enhancing or restoring anti-tumor responses in the immune system. Merck and GSK hoped it could become a targeted treatment for difficult-to-treat cancers.

Merck and GSK had an expansive clinical program for bintrafusp alfa, including indications in non-small cell lung cancer, biliary tract cancer, cervical cancer, breast cancer and urothelial cancer.