Merck joins up with NanoString to find genes that predict response to Keytruda

nCounter Analysis System--Courtesy of NanoString

Merck ($MRK) announced that it will deploy NanoString Technologies' ($NSTG) nCounter Analysis System as it searches for more genes that predict response to its checkpoint inhibiting cancer drug Keytruda.

Keytruda fights melanoma, a serious form of skin cancer, by blocking the PD-1 receptor, thereby inhibiting the associated PD-L1 receptor from putting the brakes on the immune system. The goal is to enable the body's defenses to fight cancer without being inhibited by molecular messages telling it to slow down.

The alliance takes on greater significance because the FDA just announced that it has given the medicine priority review status for its bid to earn approval for the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer.

"Our commitment to advancing the science of immuno-oncology includes pursuing cutting-edge RNA and DNA approaches to identify a range of biomarkers, such as immune-related gene expression signatures, that in addition to PD-L1 expression, may help to identify patients who may be more likely to experience improved benefit with Keytruda," said Merck's head of oncology early-stage development, Dr. Eric Rubin, in a statement. "Our collaboration with NanoString Technologies is an important advancement for our early-stage, immuno-oncology development program. Early data exploring the predictive value of the NanoString-derived gene expression signatures with Keytruda will be presented at ASCO 2015."

The nCounter enables simultaneous genetic profiling of DNA and RNA samples without any amplification steps, Seattle's NanoString says.

The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. Under a previous agreement signed last year, NanoString Technologies stands to make up to $45 million if it can come up with a successful companion diagnostic test to screen for a subset of lymphoma patients who will benefit from Celgene's ($CELG) blockbuster drug Revlimid.

Last year, NanoString also teamed up with Brigham and Women's Hospital to study genomic biomarkers and develop diagnostic tests for cancer, furthering the company's plans for accelerated growth. It also sells an FDA-cleared prognostic indicator for distant recurrence of breast cancer, used in conjunction with its nCounter Dx Analysis System.

Merck hopes to benefit from NanoString's diagnostic and genetic expertise to boost sales of Keytruda, approved last year, with sales expectations as high as $900 million.

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