Pfizer and Merck extend heavyweight immuno-oncology pact to lung cancer

Two Big Pharma heavyweights in the cancer field are joining hands on yet another immuno-oncology pact, adding to a long string of combination drug partnerships that promise to amp up the impact of a growing portfolio of cancer therapies. In today's case, Merck ($MRK) and Pfizer ($PFE) have struck a deal to add the PD-1 superstar pembrolizumab to Xalkori for ALK-positive cases of advanced non-small cell lung cancer.

The companies are keeping the terms of the deal private, but Pfizer will take the lead on the Phase Ib study, which launches sometime next year. Both companies now have a full plate of combination pacts to explore. Earlier they had agreed to match Pfizer's Inlyta with pembrolizumab for renal cell carcinoma. Another trial will add Pfizer's experimental drug PF-2566, an IO treatment that targets the human 4-1BB receptor, for multiple cancers.

The deals have been coming fast and furious for Merck, which is determined to make good on pembrolizumab as fast as possible. While there's still considerable debate whether Merck or Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) is ahead where it counts in the IO field, Merck has executed a partnering operation for this single therapy that would dwarf the entire range of such deals for a similar-sized giant--like Pfizer. Its partners include Amgen ($AMGN), where Merck R&D chief Roger Perlmutter went back to partner on T-Vec, Incyte and others. Just yesterday little Advaxis agreed to pay for its first date with Merck to do a combo study of its own, in the hopes of inspiring a bigger, more lucrative pact with one of the Big Pharma players down the road.

Merck isn't alone. AstraZeneca ($AZN) has been striking deals while Roche has a number of in-house products to work with, but its deal team is way ahead on organizing a whole wave of studies around one program. For Merck, pembrolizumab represents both a giant-sized opportunity as well as a shot at redemption for a 5-year stretch of ho-hum R&D work. And they seem determined to set a hyperactive pace that will be hard to rival.

Pembrolizumab is one of the leaders in this immuno-oncology race to the finish line. The drug is designed to strip cancer cells of a key mechanism that shields them from an immune system attack. And it makes a natural partner for a whole range of cancer therapies.

Merck's Dr. Eric Rubin

"We are pleased to build upon our ongoing collaboration with Pfizer to evaluate potential combination regimens incorporating Merck's investigational immunotherapy pembrolizumab," said Dr. Eric Rubin, vice president of oncology at Merck Research Laboratories. "Evidence from early studies of pembrolizumab monotherapy together with Xalkori's proven targeted therapeutic approach provides the scientific rationale for evaluating this combination for the treatment of lung cancer."

- here's the release