AstraZeneca, Merck to collaborate on early stage cancer drugs

AstraZeneca (AZN) and Merck & Co (MRK) said that they will collaborate to research a novel combination anticancer regimen composed of two investigational compounds from Merck and AstraZeneca. According to preclinical trials (the laboratory phase), combining the two medicines could enhance their anticancer properties, making them more effective in the fight against the disease.

This is unusual as the two rivals will collaborate at an early stage of research and combine the cancer drugs already in Phase I test ( the first stage of clinical testing). In fact, it is the first example of companies joining forces so early. The early stages, normally involving only a small amount of patients, focus mainly on whether the compound is safe and can reach its intended target, but are insufficient to determine whether a drug is effective. At later stages, a larger population is used to determine whether a treatment actually works.

While combination drug treatments are common in cancer, they're usually tested and developed in late stages or after the drugs have hit the market. The new drug combination Merck and AstraZeneca are testing will likely take years to reach the market.

Following the initial trials, the two drugmakers will decide on further development. All development costs will be shared jointly.

The two compounds are AstraZeneca's AZD6244 and Merck's MK-2206. AZD6244 is in midstage development, meaning it is being tested in Phase II monotherapy trials against a number of cancers. MK-2206 is in its early stage and presented Phase I clinical trial results this week at ASCO.

Each candidate is designed to inhibit a protein known to be abnormally activated in human cancers, limiting its effect on cancer cell growth and survival. They are intended for the treatment of solid cancer tumors.

While advances have indeed led to a new generation of drugs designed to precisely target cancer cells features while minimizing the effect on healthy cells, increasingly the ability of cancer cells to adapt and develop resistance has become apparent. The importance of this early stage combination, the companies said, is that research suggests that combination therapies that include drugs with different mechanisms of action impacting cancer cells in multiple ways may provide an improved anticancer benefit and decrease the risk of relapse.

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