Merck partners up with GlaxoSmithKline on its prize cancer immunotherapy

At Merck, MK-3475 is one of the few in-house pipeline programs to generate much enthusiasm in recent times. The PD-1 checkpoint receptor therapy has been given elite status at the troubled giant, with a dedicated team practically given carte blanche to accelerate development in a race toward a potential regulatory approval. And now GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) has agreed to team up with Merck ($MRK), matching its kidney cancer drug Votrient in combination studies in a collaboration that potentially will add a number of additional pair-ups in the clinic.

In a brief release out this morning, Merck said it would match MK-3475 with GlaxoSmithKline's Votrient for kidney cancer, adding that its deal also covers other oncology assets at GSK. In classic form, Merck--always reluctant to divulge much in the way of details about its deals, or anything else--declined to spell out the financial terms of the collaboration.

For Merck, the collaboration represents both a strength and a weakness. The company has one of the leading checkpoint receptor therapies in the clinic, a new approach to triggering an immune system attack on cancer that has demonstrated remarkable potential at Merck as well as Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and Roche ($RHHBY). But unlike its rivals, Merck's lingering 7-year drought on the blockbuster front will force it to reach outside its organization more often to find combination approaches--adding the wallop of an immunotherapy with a range of targeted cancer therapies.  

Merck also made it clear that its business development team has more of these deals in the works.

"Collaborations like this are central to Merck's strategy to evaluate the potential of MK-3475 for the treatment of cancer," said Iain Dukes, senior vice president of licensing and external scientific affairs at Merck Research Laboratories. "We look forward to initiating further collaborations to investigate MK-3475 in combination with other anti-cancer agents across a range of tumor types."

Just a little more than two months ago, Merck was finally forced to concede that its R&D division, fueled with more than $8 billion a year, had failed to live up to the company's rosy forecasts under CEO Ken Frazier. Now thousands of research staffers are being chopped out of the organization, triggering the kind of corporate turmoil that can disrupt the entire enterprise. In the case of MK-3475, the pharma giant has clearly decided to protect its lead asset and provide it all the resources and attention it needs to demonstrate that the company can still develop important new therapies.

- here's the release