- Merck & Co paid $50 million to Otsuka subsidiaries Astex Pharmaceuticals and Taiho Pharmaceutical to collaborate on targeted cancer drugs, including KRAS inhibitors. Merck is joining a race with Amgen, Mirati Therapeutics, Johnson & Johnson and Eli Lilly to develop agents aimed at KRAS-mutated tumors.
- Merck will fund research and development of experimental drugs in the collaboration, and will be in charge of global commercialization. Astex and Taiho would be eligible for up to $2.5 billion in payments in addition to royalties on marketed products.
- News of the deal comes less than a month after Merck presented exploratory data suggesting its immuno-oncology blockbuster Keytruda improved survival in lung cancer patients with KRAS mutations, who often perform worse than those without.
Merck isn't placing all of its oncology bets on Keytruda (pembrolizmab). Last month, the pharma showed how much interest it had in targeted drugs called kinase inhibitors when it spent $2.7 billion to snatch up ArQule.
Today's announcement of a $50 million collaboration with Astex and Taiho represents a much smaller ante. The collaboration covers preclinical research on small molecule agents targeting cancer-related mutations being conducted by all three companies. This includes the KRAS oncogene, once thought to be an undruggable target.
Interest in inhibiting KRAS has heightened over the past year as Amgen has revealed data from its leading candidate, called AMG 510, which is now in Phase 1/2 study along with Mirati's MRTX849. Eli Lilly and J&J have initiated early trials of their drugs LY3499446 and JNJ-74699157, respectively.
Merck's interest in KRAS inhibition is a sign that it believes its biological agent Keytruda, which was on track to hit $11 billion in sales in 2019, could be vulnerable to competition in diseases like lung cancer.
Last month, it released exploratory data from the KEYNOTE-042 trial indicating that in previously untreated patients with non-squamous non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) that expresses Keytruda's target, called PD-1, the immuno-oncology drug alone was able to shrink tumors and delay death or disease progression in KRAS-positive patients better than chemotherapy. The finding prompted Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Louise Chen to say KRAS could "fade like a fad" if the data is confirmed in additional clinical study.
Merck doesn't seem to think it can ignore targeted KRAS agents, however. Having its own KRAS-targeting drug could serve to secure its leading place in lung cancer, where AMG 510 and MRTX849 have been able to shrink or eliminate tumors in patients.
In Astex, the New Jersey-based big pharma found a partner that has already had some discovery success. Its research led to the successful launch of Novartis' breast cancer drug Kisqali (ribociclib) and Johnson & Johnson's urothelial cancer drug Balversa (erdafitinib).