Pfizer to trial triple-threat cancer cocktail therapy

Pfizer ($PFE) and its immuno-oncology partner Merck KGaA will combine three experimental cancer drugs in an early-stage study as the U.S. giant seeks to play catch-up in the checkpoint inhibitor space.

The cocktail of three immunotherapies comes from its $850 million deal struck with Germany’s Merck back in 2014--and will see it use Merck's PD-L1 treatment avelumab and two further treatments: uomilumab and another code-named OX40.

This early-stage trial will be one of the first to test three immunotherapies at the same time to work out whether it can shrink tumors--safely--in those suffering from solid cancers, according to the Financial Times.

Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer’s research and development chief, told the London newspaper that grouping several drugs into a single treatment plan could extend the benefits of existing immunotherapies. “To go from months to years, there is only one path, and that is combination therapies,” he said.

One of the aims of the study is to determine how much manipulation of the immune system the body can handle, said Mace Rothenberg, chief medical officer in Pfizer’s cancer division. “We want to find the best benefit to risk ratio, because we don’t want to make a treatment that is worse than the disease,” he added.

Pfizer is also conducting a number of other combination trials, including the Phase III test for its marketed TKI kidney cancer drug Inlyta together with avelumab, with a Phase I trial combining Verastem’s ($VSTM) cancer drug VS-6063, again with avelumab, in ovarian cancer also ongoing. This follows the lead of other Big Pharmas and biotechs that are focusing on putting new cancer therapies together.

Pfizer has been growing its cancer pipeline over the past 5 years, with NSCLC treatment Xalkori, aging blockbuster kidney cancer drug Sutent and its follow-up Inlyta, as well as breast cancer 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 this new 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.

Checkpoint inhibitors, also known as PD-1 or PD-L1 treatments, can help patients with advanced forms of the disease--but around two-thirds of patients don’t benefit from them. Cocktail therapies may be the only way to help more patients live longer and also try to stop resistance.

Merck ($MRK) and Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) gained first approval for this new class back in 2014 with Roche and AstraZeneca ($AZN) now playing catch-up. Roche ($RHHBY) was in fact recently granted two speedy FDA reviews for its PD-L1 bladder cancer treatment atezolizumab, while AstraZeneca--a former M&A target for Pfizer--has fallen behind with trial setbacks. The top-end estimates for this market see it reaching $35 billion by next decade.

After the recent collapse of its potential $160 billion deal to buy Ireland’s Allergan to lower its tax bill, the U.S. drugmaker is now rumored to seek growth from cancer research, given its apparent intentions to buy Medivation ($MDVN), its blockbuster prostate cancer drug Xtandi, and its pipeline of mid- to late-stage oncology assets. The company has refused to talk about the rumors. 

- see the Financial Times story