Merck KGaA pens $855M biobucks pact with Debiopharm for next-gen cancer asset

Germany’s Merck, looking to beef up its cancer pipeline and move beyond its checkpoint inhibitor Bavencio in the future, has signed up to in-license a late-stage oncology assert from Swiss biotech Debiopharm.



The drug pact zeroes in on xevinapant (aka Debio 1143), an oral inhibitor of apoptosis proteins antagonists, which the companies say is the only medicine in its class in late-stage clinical development and “has the potential to be first in class.”



This is no early nor preclinical asset, either: It’s working its way through a phase 3 in a tough area, namely previously untreated high-risk locally advanced squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN).



While an increasingly coming cancer, there are few treatment options out there specific for it, and a number of Big Pharmas have seen setbacks in against this target in recent years, including Merck and its partner Pfizer’s own Bavencio, which flopped in SCCHN last year in the so-called Javelin study.



RELATED: Pfizer, Merck KGaA's Bavencio skewered by Javelin in head and neck cancer



It will hope to have a better aim here and is putting down €188 million upfront and up to €710 million in biobucks, or $855 million, a pretty small upfront and total consideration for a late-stage drug, and one with an FDA breakthrough tag.



This was given after its midstage data showed that, at three years of follow-up, xevinapant plus standard of care showed a statistically significant 51% reduction in the risk of death versus placebo plus chemotherapy and radiation, with about two-thirds of patients in the xevinapant arm alive at three years, compared with just over half (51%) in the control arm.



“The data for xevinapant to date show its potential to enhance the standard of care in this curative setting for head and neck cancer, addressing a significant unmet medical need for patients with this disease,” said Bertrand Ducrey, CEO of Debiopharm. “Our partner is exceptionally qualified to advance xevinapant, given their extensive knowledge in head and neck cancer and their commercial oncology capabilities around the world.”