Monday, June 01, 2009

Merck/AZ Cancer Deal: Will Intra-Big Pharma Development Deals Move Beyond the Serendipitous?

Is that a mek inhibitor, sir?

Merck and AstraZeneca are expected to announce today that they're teaming up to test a combination of two early-stage oncology candidates. The companies are billing the deal as a first-of-its-kind collaboration--and fair enough: we can't think of another time two large companies have done this kind of deal with two molecules so far from the market.

The Big Pharmas will test Merck's MK-2206 and AZ's AZD6244 (a.k.a. ARRY-886, the compound was acquired from Array Biopharma in 2003) in a Phase I safety and tolerability trial. Costs will be split evenly, the program will be steered by a joint committee, and Merck is the sponsor of the trial.

The reason so few Big Pharma-Big Pharma development deals get done is that they're very tricky; control, valuation, overlap with other, non-partnered projects--these and other things present high hurdles for two large companies to come together in even basic ways. Of course there are plenty of reasons to take a stab at such deals--several of which are outlined in this February IN VIVO piece from Bain & Co. But if these alliances aren't discouraged institutionally, they're certainly not highly sought after either. In fact this deal came about not through any lets-be-friends business development outreach program at Merck or AZ, but by chance encounter.

"This was driven by two scientists meeting at an airport security checkpoint," Merck chief strategy officer and SVP worldwide licensing and external research Merv Turner told The IN VIVO Blog.

One scientist from Merck, one from AZ, they got chatting, and presumably between removing their laptops from their cases and putting their shoes back on, the special and awkward intimacy that comes from publicly surrendering all liquids and being patted down by a stranger wearing latex gloves worked its magic. WSJ's Ron Winslow has more color on the actual conversation, which apparently included that old chestnut "Are you the mek guy?"

"Of course through competitive intelligence they had some information about what each company was up to ... and they said to one another, there’s a compelling rationale for getting these molecules together," lets get the business development groups on the case, says Turner.

That airport rendezvous was in Dublin in November 2007. That it took more than 18 months to ink a deal to conduct a combination Phase I program says as much about the complexities of oncology drug development as it does the difficulties of intra-Big Pharma dealmaking.

Merck's MK-2206 is, according to Merck and AZ, the most advanced AKT inhibitor in development. AKT acts just downstream of PI3k in that important cancer cell survival pathway (the one generating all those deals lately); Phase I data on the drug were presented at this weekend's ASCO meeting. AZ's '6244 hits mitogen-activated protein kinase 1 (mek), an actor in an important parallel signaling pathway. Like the Merck compound, '6244 is further along than its competitors; the candidate has completed several Phase II monotherapy studies and its Phase II program continues apace.

A greater understanding of cancer biology, says Turner, should drive more deals like this one, where "the potential to short circuit what could otherwise be a long and combinatorial approach to finding the right pairs" of oncology therapies "becomes quite compelling."

There are over 800 molecules in development for various cancers. "We're learning more and more about the nature of tumorogenicity and the pathways involved and therefore how to select targets and populations expressing those targets ... and as we go forward into the new mechanism-driven approaches to tumor biology the rationale for combining agents which target complementary pathways becomes more clear," explains Turner.

Of course Merck is developing its own mek inhibitor and AZ its own AKT inhibitor, there are multiple targets in each pathway, and such compounds could be useful in a variety of cancers where the companies have individual ongoing programs, all which could complicate a more extensive deal.

"When we set out on this, to try to think through all the possibilities, we soon realized that the number of branches that arise if you try to construct a decision tree of all the things that might happen in development, it just becomes overwhelming," says Turner. So the companies are starting slowly, taking a step-wise approach to collaboration that need not go beyond this Phase I program.

We decided, "let's start with the easy part, work out how we'll do these experiments together in patients in Phase I, and if that succeeds, we'll go on to the next part," he says.

If the eventual goal is some sort of fixed-dose combination the companies will eventually have to jump in with two feet, perhaps partnering on multiple compounds or even entire pathways. But that need not happen at all. "The first goal could be to have each party arrive at the marketplace [independently], with a label statement that supports use of the other agent in combination," says Turner.

A small step, but a step forward, and the kind of thing that if repeated often enough could have some meaningful impact on drug development costs and speed to market, eventually advancing the standard of care in difficult diseases.

We presume this means taking another step, beyond chance encounters in airports or the DMV or even Starbucks. "If this works as advertised," sums up Turner, "we can think of it as a template for future similar deals."

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