Merck loops Pfizer, Amgen and Incyte in on MK-3475 immunotherapy deal spree

Merck R&D chief Roger Perlmutter

At Merck, the already giant-sized hope that its cancer immunotherapy program for the PD-1 drug MK-3475 represents just swelled significantly in importance. Just ahead of its 2013 earnings report Wednesday, the pharma giant ($MRK) announced plans to tie up with a trio of major league biopharma partners to launch a whole new slate of combination studies that could significantly extend its reach in the oncology market.

Pfizer ($PFE) has agreed to join the party, collaborating on pair-ups with Inlyta and PF-2566, which targets the 4-1BB receptor, for multiple cancers. Incyte ($INCY) will add MK-3475 to INCB24360, an indoleamine 2, 3-dioxygenase inhibitor, for non-small cell lung cancer and other cancers. And Amgen ($AMGN) will enlist in the MK-3475 campaign as well, looking to see how it works with talimogene laherparepvec, an engineered cold virus tapped as a top cancer prospect at the company when Perlmutter was then head of its research operations.

Finally, Merck will significantly ramp up its in-house work on MK-3475, launching early-stage studies for 20 different PD-L1-positive solid tumor types that haven't already been explored.

Arriving just ahead of the company's 4th quarter report on shrinking profits, the news proved to be a welcome distraction for a Big Pharma company with more than its share of woes to contend with. Merck's share price surged on the back of the new collaboration.

"MRK seems to now "get" that the PD-1 cancer race is hyper-hyper-hyper competitive and, as such, now seems to be picking up the pace of its announcements," notes ISI's Mark Schoenebaum .

R&D chief Roger Perlmutter has made no secret of the fact that MK-3475 represents a huge opportunity to reform its reputation after years of lackluster research performance. The program for MK-3475--which is designed to take the brakes off the human immune system so it can fight cancer--has been identified as Merck's crown jewel. And Perlmutter has made an accelerated approval a top priority at the pharma giant.

With MK-3475 targeting PD-1, scientists have the chance to combine the drug with a wide variety of therapeutics. And today's deal spree is likely to be followed by more collaborations and combinations.

Merck's moves today will add significantly to the heat at Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY), which has been coming under criticism for letting Merck seize the lead in the field as it lingers in Phase II with nivolumab. Roche ($RHHBY) has also earned considerable attention for its PD-L1 program. 

Schoenebaum, though, still credits Bristol-Myers as the leader in this field. Writes Schoenebaum: "I calculate that MRK's share price bakes in around $2B of PD-1 sales vs around $6-7B for BMY. At this point, we believe BMY deserves to be viewed as the "leader," but we've suggested that MRK, as a stock in 2015, might offer a better risk/reward."

"Merck clinical scientists intend to explore the potential of our PD-1 inhibitor across a wide range of cancers, both as monotherapy and in combination," said Perlmutter in a statement. "These new collaborations with Amgen, Incyte and Pfizer underscore our shared determination to evaluate treatment regimens with the potential to provide meaningful benefits to patients suffering from cancer."

- here's the press release

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