Immuno-oncology deal frenzy continues as Merck partners with MD Anderson

An avalanche of immuno-oncology research deals is continuing this morning with news that Merck ($MRK) is tying up with the cancer specialists at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for a slate of new combination studies to help test Keytruda's full potential as a PD-1 star.

Keytruda won the first U.S. approval for any checkpoint inhibitor, a leading therapeutic in a new wave of medicines that dismantles a biologic barrier to an immune system attack on cancer. The checkpoint drugs are part of a larger group of therapies designed to steer T cells against cancer.

For Merck, which is battling Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) as the first mover in this emerging multibillion-dollar market, Keytruda quickly became its ticket for an R&D comeback after a years-long drought in the pipeline. Merck has essentially carved out a new pipeline of projects built around Keytruda, and MD Anderson's experts will be employed to test the drug alongside existing chemotherapies, radiation treatment and novel (but unspecified) antitumor therapies.

MD Anderson's Dr. Patrick Hwu

"Through these types of collaborations, we are able to engage in larger, more comprehensive studies that aim to accelerate the pace of discovery," said Dr. Patrick Hwu, division head of cancer medicine at MD Anderson, in a statement. "We believe that this new agreement will help to speed delivery of new cancer treatments that our patients expect and deserve."

None of the terms of this research alliance were included in the announcement.

So far this week alone, there have been at least 10 other immuno-oncology news stories in Fierce's life sciences publications covering a potential multibillion-dollar payoff--and these stories are coming in from around the world. That news runs the gamut from Art Krieg's $20 million startup at Cambridge, MA-based Checkmate, which is studying an immune system activator, to J&J's ($JNJ) $700 million alliance with Sweden's Alligator, a $727 million deal between AstraZeneca ($AZN) and Inovio ($INO) and a $120M round for Editas, which is partnered with CAR-T specialist Juno ($JUNO).

The money for the immuno-oncology market is just starting to roll in, but the deals that are being done today will determine the real winners when sales hit a peak.

- here's the release