Merck KGaA in Transgene cancer vaccine-checkpoint inhibitor test tie-up

German Merck has inked another combo trial deal, this time with its Pfizer-backed experimental PD-L1 candidate avelumab set to be used alongside Transgene’s cancer vax TG4001.

The Franco-Germanic tie-up will see avelumab and TG4001 used in certain patients with HPV-positive head and neck cancers after they have failed on a standard therapy in a Phase I/II study.

The aim of the combo test is to “target two distinct steps in the immune response to target cancer cells,” the companies said in a statement.

Prof Christophe Le Tourneau, head of the early phase program at Institut Curie, will run the test, which is slated to start in France from the middle of next year.

Prof Le Tourneau said: “HPV-induced head and neck cancers are currently treated with the same regimen as non-HPV-positive HNSCC tumors. However, their different etiology clearly suggests that differentiated treatment approaches are needed for HPV-positive patients.

“Immunotherapy, and in particular the therapeutic vaccine TG4001 together with the PD-L1 blocker avelumab, by targeting two distinct steps in the immune response, could deliver improved efficacy for patients who have not responded to or have progressed after a first line of treatment.”

TG4001 works as an immunotherapeutic and is based on a non-propagative, attenuated vaccinia vector.

Cancer vaccines have not had the best research path in recent years, but combining a therapeutic vaccine with the new class of checkpoint inhibitors is becoming something of a theme. Back in April, AstraZeneca ($AZN) said it would combine its checkpoint inhibitor durvalumab with an experimental cancer vaccine from TapImmune in a midstage trial aimed at certain ovarian cancer patients.

Merck, which is developing avelumab with Pfizer ($PFE) in a major, near $900 million 2014 pact, also last week signed an R&D combo deal with New York-based Vaccinex and its experimental anti-semaphorin 4D IgG4 mAb VX15/2503 in non-small cell lung cancer patients.

Combos are all the rage in cancer research now, especially when bringing together any and every cancer class with a checkpoint inhibitor as researchers look to boost immune response, efficacies and safety profiles across the board.