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AstraZeneca and Merck launch early stage trial collaboration

Published on 03/06/09 at 11:47am

Merck and AstraZeneca have begun an unprecedented collaboration to bring together the clinical trials of two early stage cancer medicines.

The two targeted agents, AstraZeneca's AZD6244 and Merck MK-2206, will be studied as a combination treatment for the treatment of solid cancer tumours.

In the increasingly competitive field of oncology drug development, testing the two drugs together as a combination treatment much earlier than normal could increase its chances of clinical and commercial success.

The new approach could help boost the clinical efficacy of the treatment, reduce development costs and help the treatment reach patients faster.

AZD6244 targets MEK (Mitogen-activated protein kinase 1), an important signal that promotes cancer cell growth and survival, and has reached phase II, where it has shown to have clinical efficacy and is being studied for a range of different cancers. AstraZeneca acquired the rights to the drug from Array Biopharma in December 2003, and hopes it could eventually be a star performer in its cancer portfolio.

Merck's MK-2206 targets AKT (a component of the phosphatidylinositol-3 kinase pathway), an important signal promoting cancer cell survival.

Both drugs target a single kinase pathway, chemical messengers which are thought to play a major role in the growth of cancers. But many companies are now developing molecules which target multiple kinases, and thereby potentially have a greater clinical effect. This means that without the collaboration AZ and Merck's single kinase inhibitors faced a greater chance of being outstripped by rivals.

The combination must still compete against numerous rival molecules, including multiple kinases inhibitors. One example of such a drug already on the market is Pfizer's renal cell carcinoma treatment Sutent (sunitinib), while GSK's pazopanib is in phase III trials for the same indication.

"There is strong scientific rationale to suggest that the potential benefit to cancer patients of this combination may far exceed the sum of the parts," said Gary Gilliland, head of oncology, Merck Research Laboratories. "In order to harness the true potential of the combined administration of the compounds, AstraZeneca and Merck have established a pioneering, early stage collaboration based on our mutual determination to develop impactful therapies that improve patients' lives."

Alan Barge, head of oncology at AstraZeneca, said: "This collaboration brings together two leading companies with a wealth of expertise in oncology.

"Through this agreement we are well positioned to implement a detailed and timely evaluation of the therapeutic potential of this novel combination, with the aim of bringing this potentially effective regimen to patients as rapidly as possible."

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