Pfizer lines up three experimental I/O meds for NCI research tie-up

Pfizer is to team up with scientists from the National Cancer Institute to work on three of its leading pipeline immunotherapy oncology meds against a host of cancer targets.

The co-op deal, financial details of which were not published, will see the two assess Pfizer’s ($PFE) OX40 agonist, its utomilumab and the German Merck-partnered avelumab both alone and in various combos with other meds, including chemo, radiation therapy and standard meds.

Pfizer has so far released little detailed info about the mAb OX40 agonist and the 4-1BB-targeting utomilumab, but back in May, Pfizer and Merck KGaA announced they would combine all three of these experimental therapies in an early-stage study and comes as the U.S. giant seeks to play catch-up in the checkpoint inhibitor space dominated by Merck ($MRK), Bristol-Myers ($BMY) and newcomer Roche ($RHHBY).

The pact sees both the preclinical and clinical studies to be co-led by Dr. Jeffrey Schlom, chief of the Laboratory of Tumor Immunology and Biology at NCI's Center for Cancer Research; Dr. James Gulley, chief of the Genitourinary Malignancies Branch at CCR; and Dr. Chris Boshoff, senior VP and head of immuno-oncology at Pfizer.

Boshoff said: “We are looking forward to combining our expertise with those at the NCI to explore agents targeting the immune system in doublet and triplet combinations. Clinical studies focused on translational endpoints will allow us to optimally develop potential rational combinations. The [deal] is an important collaboration for us as we seek to realize the full potential of immunotherapy and hope to ultimately transform the cancer treatment paradigm.”

Beyond this latest collab, Pfizer is advancing these and other assets from its growing immuno-oncology portfolio with single-agent and novel combination studies, both internally and through other collaborations.

Pfizer has been growing its cancer pipeline over the past five years, with NSCLC treatment Xalkori, aging blockbuster kidney cancer drug Sutent and its follow-up Inlyta, as well as breast cancer drug Ibrance, which is set to hit the $1 billion sales mark this year, all bringing in solid sales for the drugmaker.

But Pfizer was not on the original bandwagon for the new cancer class of checkpoint inhibitors and is now playing catch-up with avelumab. The two companies are also testing the experimental therapy in ovarian, gastric, lung and bladder cancer settings.

After the recent collapse of its potential $160 billion deal to buy Ireland’s Allergan ($AGN) to lower its tax bill, the U.S. drugmaker stumped up $14 billion to buy Medivation ($MDVN), its blockbuster prostate cancer drug Xtandi, and its pipeline of mid- to late-stage oncology assets, earlier this year.