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Merck Teams Up with Pfizer in Cancer Drug Test

Merck & Co. announced Wednesday that it has signed deals to test MK-3475 together with cancer drugs from new partners including Pfizer Inc., Amgen Inc. and Incyte Corp. The move has been considered strategic considering Merck has few cancer drugs in development.

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Merck said its planned studies include giving MK-3475 along with two Pfizer drugs to patients with varying cancer types. One drug is called PF-2566; the other drug, axitinib, is sold as the brand Inlyta for treating kidney disease.

Merck will also test MK-3475 with Incyte’s INCB24360 against multiple advanced cancers, in particular non-small cell lung cancer. MK-3475 will be tested with an Amgen experimental immunotherapy called talimogene laherparepvec.

Financial terms of the deal have not been disclosed. On a conference call with analysts to discuss Merck’s fourth-quarter results, CEO Kenneth Frazier said the deals were “very attractive to both parties.”

Cancer drugs in general are very lucrative because they command such high prices and are generally covered by insurance plans.

Merck said it expects by June to apply for U.S. approval to sell the drug for advanced stages of the skin cancer melanoma.

Merck has gained international attention for it’s experimental cancer drug, which was already being closely watched by investors, and it got even more attention after the company announced new alliances with three drugmakers to test it in combination with their drugs.

The news temporarily drove Merck shares to a six-figure high of $55.20 per the Washington Post. They fell back down as broader markets slumped and by early afternoon were trading at $53.65, up 14 cents.

The drug, MK-3475, is part of a promising new class of cancer treatment designed to make the immune system regain its ability to identify and target harmful cancer cells.

In some cancer types, the tumor cells often have a protein on their surface called PD-L1 that acts as an invisibility cloak. Merck’s MK-375 and similar drugs can block that protein, a crucial immune system component, therefor making tumor cells visible.

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