Merck KGaA tackles hot immuno-oncology field in partnership with MorphoSys

MorphoSys has notched another high-profile pharma partnership on its belt of antibody deals, and it's set its sights on the hottest R&D sector in oncology: immune checkpoint inhibitors. With this pact, Merck KGaA is also staking out a position on the growing roster of companies scrambling to find a profitable place for itself in an immuno-oncology market that's being billed as a potential $35 billion bonanza.

The German pharma company turned to MorphoSys, which has signed development deals with GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), Celgene ($CELG), Novartis ($NVS) and a slew of other companies, for antibodies that can modulate the human immune system. There were no numbers in the announcement and the German Merck says that it will be in charge of any drugs that go into the clinic at Phase I.

Following on the success of the pioneering Yervoy, the U.S. Merck ($MRK), Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY), Roche ($RHHBY) and now AstraZeneca ($AZN) all turned out at ASCO recently to update investors on their industry-leading IO work, a field that Citi analysts estimated--with considerable fanfare--has the potential to generate $35 billion in sales. But many other biopharma companies see a place for themselves in the second wave of programs expected to make it to this blockbuster market.

Simply put, immune checkpoint drugs disable a mechanism that cancer cells rely on to stay hidden from the immune system. This approach has delivered some solid results in the clinic, inspiring a host of combination drug deals as developers go after a one-two punch against cancer.

In addition to its late-stage revival effort for a cancer vaccine, Merck KGaA also counts two immunocytokines, NHS-IL2 (MSB0010445) and NHS-IL12 (MSB0010360), and the monoclonal antibody anti-PD-L1 (MSB0010718C) in its pipeline. Merck Serono has also built up a preclinical effort focused on therapeutic cancer vaccines, cancer stem cells, and tumor immunotolerance.

"The establishment of partnerships with companies with innovative technology platforms is an integral part of Merck Serono's strategy to further expand upon our already diverse immuno-oncology portfolio," said Dr. Helen Sabzevari, the senior VP of immuno-oncology at Merck Serono. "Combining Merck Serono's extensive expertise in immuno-oncology with MorphoSys's next-generation antibody technology provides us with an exciting opportunity to rapidly generate novel therapies with a clear potential to benefit cancer patients."

Darmstadt-based Merck KGaA has experienced plenty of pipeline setbacks over the years, including a high-profile Phase III failure for the cancer vaccine Stimuvax. The company later decided to try to salvage the program after recording a significant response in one subgroup of patients and launched a new Phase III for the therapy, now dubbed tecemotide. The German pharma company decided to radically overhaul its R&D work after the failure of another notable drug for MS, but just a few months ago R&D chief Annalisa Jenkins left the company after only a short stint at the top of the research group, highlighting some continued turmoil.

- here's the release (PDF)