BioLineRx joins Merck's clique of immuno-oncology partners

Israeli drug developer BioLineRx ($BLRX) is partnering with Merck ($MRK) to see whether its in-development cancer therapy can work in tandem with an approved treatment that taps the power of the immune system, joining a long list of clinical partners.

The two companies have agreed to match BioLineRx's BL-8040 with Merck's Keytruda, which blocks the protein PD-1 to expose tumors to the body's natural defenses, in a Phase II study. BioLineRx is responsible for running the trial, which is slated to enroll patients with metastatic pancreatic adenocarcinoma, and the company plans to get started in the middle of this year.

Under the agreement, either Merck or BioLineRx has the option to push the combination therapy into pivotal study. Neither side disclosed financial details.

BioLineRx's therapy works by blocking the protein CXCR4 to marshal immune cells toward malignancies, and the company believes pairing it with a PD-1 antibody could create a viable cancer-killing combination.

The deal adds BioLineRx to a fast-growing list of companies working with Merck on potential Keytruda cocktails, a group that includes GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), Eli Lilly ($LLY), Amgen ($AMGN), Incyte ($INCY) and many others.

First approved for melanoma in 2013, Keytruda is part of a new class of therapies called checkpoint inhibitors, immuno-oncology treatments tabbed to bring in more than $30 billion a year at their peak. Also on the market is Bristol-Myers Squibb's ($BMY) PD-1-blocking Opdivo, and on the way are similar therapies from Roche ($RHHBY), AstraZeneca ($AZN) and the partnership of Merck KGaA and Pfizer ($PFE). Each company is mounting scores of studies to demonstrate how its checkpoint therapy can work in a wide variety of cancers, mixing and matching agents in hopes of hitting on combinations that make a major difference for patients.

- read the statement