Merck and Advaxis forge another no-money-down IO development pact

Almost exactly one year after Daniel O'Connor was named CEO at Advaxis, he celebrated the personal milestone with the latest in a string of deals. Pharma giant Merck stepped up with a no-strings-attached immuno-oncology development pact for pembrolizumab, one of the hot new checkpoint inhibitors promising a groundbreaking new approach to treating a wide variety of cancers. And O'Connor essentially promised to pay for the first date in the hope of forming a longer-term relationship.

For Merck ($MRK), it's a low cost way to broaden the scope of its starring anti-PD-1 program, which has been described as a pipeline in its own right, by taking pembrolizumab into a prostate cancer study. Little Advaxis ($ADXS) will fund the first combo study and Merck will provide the pembrolizumab as it also pursues studies in combination with companies ranging from Amgen ($AMGN) and GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) to Incyte, which has forged several deals in this area as well. In most of the earlier cases, financials weren't disclosed, though Incyte and Merck said they were splitting costs for the clinical study.

Combining a cancer vaccine with a checkpoint inhibitor makes good sense from a clinical perspective. The cancer vaccines are designed to kick up an immune response--Princeton, NJ-based Advaxis is working on spurring a T-cell attack on cancer--and the checkpoint inhibitors are designed to strip cancer cells of a defense mechanism. Also, cancer vaccines have had a history of weak responses, so anything that provides an added advantage in the clinic makes sense.

From a biotech perspective, it's also a chance for O'Connor to pump the stock a bit while talking up the chances of a licensing deal—even if he has to cover most of the tab for the deal. In an interview with Reuters' Ransdell Pierson, O'Connor noted that some success in the study would likely lead to further work together, perhaps under a licensing deal. It's no coincidence that Zacks highlighted the company's shot at a licensing deal when Advaxis announced its first no-money-down checkpoint inhibitor pact with AstraZeneca, which is rolling along with its own growing mix-and-match effort for a crucially important program of its own for MEDI4736. That study will focus on head and neck cancer.

O'Connor has concentrated heavily on new deals since he took the helm at Advaxis, with some good successes to report. In addition to the AstraZeneca and Merck deals, he persuaded the University of Pennsylvania to swap a clinical-stage milestone for a higher royalty rate on a prospective product. And he also struck a pact with Aratana, an interesting biotech developing pet therapies. He'll need all the money he can get to pay for his new relationships with Big Pharma.

- here's the release
- read the Reuters story