Idera's troubled TLR program founders in PhII cancer study

Cambridge, MA-based Idera Pharmaceuticals lost its big partner on toll-like receptor drugs when Merck KGaA backed out of its $421 million deal last year. This morning the biotech highlighted just how problematic the field is when it announced that the lead drug in that pact--IMO-2055--failed a mid-stage study in advanced head and neck cancer.

Investigators had been hunting signs of progression-free survival for patients in the study, which compared the results for patients taking the drug--a member of the toll-like receptor 9 (TLR9) family--in combination with Erbitux compared to Erbitux alone. Investigator patient assessments concluded the two arms achieved similar results, though an independent radiology review found that patients taking Erbitux alone experienced slightly longer PFS rates: 1.9 months compared to 1.5 months.

Merck KGaA wrote off its investment in the program last year after taking a close look at the depletion of white blood cells in patients as well as low electrolyte levels. But in handing back the rights, the pharma giant also agreed to see through the mid-stage study. Now Idera, which has seen its stock price ($IDRA) dwindle steadily since 2008, says it plans to hunt up new collaborators to pursue other cancer indications while it focuses on autoimmune diseases.

"Idera is focusing its development efforts on the drug candidates in our autoimmune disease program where we recently initiated a Phase II clinical trial of IMO-3100 in patients with psoriasis," says CEO Sudhir Agrawal. "Further, we are planning to submit an IND for IMO-8400 for the treatment of lupus in 2012." 

This isn't Idera's first taste of defeat on the TLR9 front. Novartis ($NVS) pulled out of a TLR9 pact with Idera for respiratory diseases back in 2009, two years after a program at Coley faltered in the clinic.  

- here's the press release