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Merck Serono pushes into immunotherapies for cancer

Pharma company sets up dedicated R&D unit
Merck Serono Geneva HQ

Merck Serono has set up a dedicated R&D unit to seek out new therapies that stimulate a patient's own immune system to fight cancer.

The company said the new unit would complement its established work in oncology by bringing together research, early development work and biomarker strategies for immunological therapies.

The unit will focus on three main areas of research, namely the development of therapeutic cancer vaccines, targeting cancer stem cell to stop tumours forming or spreading, and eliminating or circumventing inhibitory mechanisms in the immune system that prevent cancer cells from being recognised and attacked by the body.

Merck Serono's announcement comes shortly after analyst Andrew Baum at investment bank Citigroup published a report predicting that immunotherapies will become the dominant force in cancer treatment in the next decade, accounting for around 60 per cent of the oncology treatment market and generating $35bn a year.

The meteoric rise of these therapies stems from the fact that they are taken over an extended period of time, command premium pricing and will likely show significant efficacy gains over current treatment approaches.

One of the early entrants into the category - Bristol-Myers Squibb's Yervoy (ipilimumab) for melanoma - matches that profile and posted sales up 47 per cent to $706m in 2012, its first full-year on the market after debuting in the US in March 2011.

To tap into that potential, Merck Serono says it has assembled a team of researchers and clinicians who will try to build a portfolio of cancer immunotherapies both in-house and in collaboration with external groups.

"The complexity of cancer requires diverse approaches that will enable alternative therapeutic interventions," said the company's head of early-stage R&D Bernhard Kirschbaum.

The unit launches with several projects in phase I clinical and preclinical testing, including a monoclonal antibody against programmed Death-Ligand 1 (PD-L1) the same target as Roche's MPDL3280A, for which early-stage clinical trial results were presented last month at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting.

Also highlighted by Merck Serono are two antibodies against interleukin-12 (IL-12) and IL-2 that target the necrotic centre of tumours, region that generally proves highly-resistant to conventional chemotherapy.

"Our goal is to develop leading immunotherapies that work in combination with other therapeutic modalities, understanding that attacking multiple cancer targets simultaneously increases the possibility of therapeutic success," said Helen Sabzevari, who will lead the new immuno-oncology unit.
 

27th June 2013

From: Research

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