Playing catch-up, Pfizer looks to leapfrog Big Pharma's immuno-oncology line

Pfizer R&D chief Mikael Dolsten

Pfizer ($PFE) is well behind its rival titans in the race to cash in on a new class of cancer treatments. But instead of playing catch-up in skin cancer, the industry first immuno-oncology target, the drugmaker is skipping ahead to the next wave of malignancies.

As R&D chief Mikael Dolsten told Bloomberg, Pfizer and partner Merck KGaA are bypassing melanoma--"by itself ... not that large of an opportunity"--and going right for cancers of the kidney, bladder and, perhaps most lucrative, lung.

The pair's candidates, led by MSB0010718C, are designed to galvanize an immune system attack on tumors by blocking a pathway called PD-1, which, left unchecked, allows cancer cells to pass undetected by the body's natural defenses. Merck's ($MRK) Keytruda and Bristol-Myers Squibb's ($BMY) Opdivo became the first PD-1-blocking therapies to win FDA approval with their clearances in melanoma, leading a group that includes AstraZeneca ($AZN) and Roche ($RHHBY), whose immunotherapies target the related PD-L1.

Merck and Bristol-Myers are now locked in a race in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) approval, posting excellent data and lining up for regulatory submissions. And Pfizer, by cutting to straight to NSCLC and other cancers, believes it can more quickly compete with its rivals.

"That's our aim, to be a company that can take part in a share of the first wave, and be among the two or three leaders in the second wave," Dolsten told Bloomberg, adding that Pfizer and Merck KGaA could launch up to 6 pivotal trials in 2015.

The whole class of PD-1 and PD-L1 inhibitors is expected to bring in more than $35 billion a year at its peak, led by Bristol-Myers' drug, whose promise in lung cancer could send annual sales as high as $7.3 billion by 2020, according to Leerink. Each of the contenders has mounted expansive R&D campaigns, testing their therapies alone or in combination with other treatments in a host of tumor types.

Pfizer has embraced immuno-oncology in the months following its failed attempt to acquire AstraZeneca for about $118 billion, a quest driven largely by the allure of the latter company's cancer pipeline. Since then, the drugmaker has signed a slew of deals to bone up its internal efforts, including the agreement with Merck KGaA, signed in November, under which the U.S. drugmaker will pay $850 million up front and as much as $2 billion more in order to collaborate on up to 20 new cancer immunotherapies.

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