Pfizer has terminated a cancer drug alliance with Merck KGaA, giving the German company full control of an immunotherapy they have developed together for nearly a decade.
In a Monday statement, Merck KGaA said that, as a result of the decision, it will regain worldwide rights to Bavencio, which in the U.S. is approved to treat certain bladder, kidney and skin cancers. Currently, Pfizer jointly funds the majority of development and marketing costs for Bavencio with Merck KGaA, and splits profits equally. Beginning June 30, Pfizer will receive a 15% royalty on net sales of the drug instead.
The two companies have worked together on Bavencio since 2014, when Pfizer struck a deal with Merck KGaA to gain access to the drug, a type of immunotherapy known as a PD-L1 inhibitor. In the U.S., Bavencio was the fourth of its type approved, following Merck & Co.’s Keytruda, Bristol Myers Squibb’s Opdivo and Roche’s Tecentriq. (Keytruda and Opdivo are PD-1, rather than PD-L1, inhibitors, but are generally considered of the same class.)
While the drug has carved out a few niches in cancer treatment, its sales are dwarfed by those of Keytruda and Opdivo, and it’s used in far fewer tumor types.
For Pfizer, the reworking of its Merck KGaA partnership comes as it is attempting to buy cancer drugmaker Seagen in one of the pharmaceutical industry’s largest acquisitions of recent years. As one of Seagen’s drugs is also used to treat bladder cancer, analysts have speculated Pfizer might divest its interest in Bavencio to head off any antitrust challenges to the deal.
However, in an emailed statement, a Pfizer spokesperson said the return of Bavencio rights was “conceived independently of, and is not contingent upon, any other transaction.”
“This decision was mutually made by Pfizer and Merck KGaA based on a long-held interest by Merck KGaA to reacquire exclusive rights to Bavencio,” the spokesperson added.
Pfizer is developing a PD-1 inhibitor of its own, testing a drug called sasanlimab in a different type of bladder cancer.