Merck, Incyte eye a winning cancer combo with widened collaboration

Incyte CEO Hervé Hoppenot

Partners Merck ($MRK) and Incyte ($INCY) are broadening their oncology alliance, moving into Phase III with a pair of treatments that use the body's natural defenses to fight cancer.

Expanding on a 2014 partnership, the two are planning a late-stage trial to test whether adding Merck's Keytruda to Incyte's investigational epacadostat can improve outcomes for patients with advanced melanoma. Merck's treatment works by blocking the protein PD-1 to take the blinders off of the immune system and marshal an attack on cancer cells. Incyte's therapy, formerly INCB24360, targets an enzyme called IDO1 with much the same goal.

The plan is to kick off a Phase III trial in the first half of next year, the companies said, evaluating whether the two agents can improve standard care as a first-line combination treatment.

The two first paired off in February of last year, agreeing to test Keytruda, then pembrolizumab, alongside epacadostat in lung and other cancers with a Phase I/II study. With the latest deal, they've made their relationship exclusive going forward, each agreeing not to start any new study matching an IDO1 drug with a PD-1 antibody for a period of two years, the companies said.

Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier

For Merck, the Incyte pairing is one of more than 10 relationships focused on determining whether Keytruda can play a role in cancer-treating cocktails. The injection, already approved for skin and lung cancers, is part of a new class of therapies called checkpoint inhibitors, immuno-oncology treatments tabbed to bring in more than $30 billion a year at their peak. Merck, like rivals Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY), Roche ($RHHBY) and others, is running a wide range of trials with the goal of building out Keytruda's list of approved indications, hoping to piece together a blockbuster product.

As for Incyte, epacadostat's potential has made the biotech a popular partner for the checkpoint crowd, and it's participating in similar proof-of-concept combo studies with Bristol-Myers, Roche and AstraZeneca ($AZN). Beyond its IDO1 drug, the company is in Phase III with the Eli Lilly ($LLY)-partnered anti-inflammatory treatment baricitinib and is working through midstage trials on INCB39110 in pancreatic and lung cancers. Incyte's sole approved product, the blood cancer treatment Jakafi, is also in development for a range of malignancies.

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