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Merck to test Keytruda combinations

pharmafile | May 8, 2015 | News story | Sales and Marketing BMS, Daiichi Sankyo, Merck, Plexxikon, keytruda, pembrolizumab 

Merck will be teaming up with Daiichi Sankyo’s subsidiary Plexxikon to investigate immunotherapy combinations in cancer.

A collaborative clinical trial will examine Plexxikon’s investigational compound PLX3397 in combination with Merck’s immunotherapy Keytruda (pembrolizumab) for the treatment of melanoma and other solid tumours.

In a statement Merck says that the combination provides the potential for a ‘double blockade’ of cancer-induced immune suppression.

“We are excited to evaluate PLX3397 in combination with Keytruda, as each agent is designed to attack cancer cells in different ways,” says Gideon Bollag, chief executive of Plexxikon.

“Cancer cells use multiple tactics to evade host immune responses, and the combination of these two agents is being investigated to re-activate anti-tumor immunity using distinct and complementary mechanisms.

“Importantly, both PLX3397 and Keytruda have potential application in multiple types of cancer.”

Dr Eric Rubin, head for oncology early-stage development at Merck, adds: “We are at an important juncture in the advancement of immuno-oncology, and this is why Merck is focussed on this area of breakthrough science.

“Given the promising data observed with Keytruda and PLX3397, we are eager to see how combining these medicines may be complementary in increasing the immune response.”

Keytruda is proving to be a strong product for the company so far – it helped boost sales in Merck’s oncology division to $83 billion, it has beaten Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Yervoy (ipilimumab) in clinical trials, and it became the  first drug to be approved through the UK’s new Early Access to Medicines Scheme.

Daiichi purchased Plexxikon in 2011 for $805 million to boost its cancer pipeline. It also gained rights to the melanoma drug Zelboraf (vemurafenib), which is co-developed with Roche and has recently been given priority review for the treatment of melanoma in combination with cobimetinib, which is developed by its subsidiary Genentech.

CLL success for AbbVie and Roche

Roche and Genentech have also seen success in chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) this week, as their investigational drug venetoclax – co-developed with AbbVie – has received breakthrough therapy designation from the FDA for treating patients of the disease with 17p deletion.

The 17p deletion is associated with poor resistance to standard CLL therapies, and the average life expectancy for such patients is less than two to three years. It is a mutation where part of chromosome 17 is missing, and affects approximately 3-10% of CLL patients at diagnosis and 30-50% of those with relapsed or refractory CLL.

However venetoclax is far from the only treatment for this condition – Janssen’s Imbruvica (ibrutinib) and Gilead’s Zydelig (idelalisib) are also approved for the indication.

George Underwood

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