Merck and Amgen team up in immuno-oncology with a pair of combo trials

Merck ($MRK) and Amgen ($AMGN) have joined forces with plans to test their immune system-bolstering cancer therapies in tandem, hoping to hit on a winning combination in biopharma's most collaborative field.

Under a partnership agreement, the companies plan to launch a Phase Ib/III lymphoma study pairing Amgen's Blincyto, designed to direct the body's disease-fighting immune cells to attack cancerous growth, with Merck's Keytruda, an antibody that helps unblind the immune system to malignancies. The two will also start a Phase I/II study combining Keytruda with Amgen's investigational AMG 820, an antibody that targets the protein CSF1R to interrupt tumor metabolism.

The alliance adds to each company's swelling list of partners in the blockbuster immuno-oncology space, where drug developers are keen to mix and match each other's therapies in hopes of finding one-two punches that can improve upon the standard of care for a wide variety of cancers.

Merck's Keytruda, approved for lung cancer and melanoma, is involved in more than a dozen such combo studies with partners including Eli Lilly ($LLY), GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and Incyte ($INCY). Amgen has been similarly open to collaboration with its immunotherapy portfolio, which includes Blincyto and the recently approved Imlygic.

Keytruda is part of a novel class of therapies called checkpoint inhibitors, immuno-oncology treatments tabbed to bring in more than $30 billion a year at their peak. Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) is on the market with its similar Opdivo, trailed by Roche ($RHHBY), AstraZeneca ($AZN) and the partnership of Merck KGaA and Pfizer ($PFE).

- read the statement