Reuters

(Reuters)

Pfizer: Merck Deal Makes it 'Competitive' in Immuno-Oncology

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Pfizer's (PFE) deal to buy rights to a promising drug from Germany's Merck KGaA will enable it to compete strongly in the fast-growing field of cancer immunotherapy, its research head said.

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Some analysts have criticized Pfizer for being late to the hot new area of cancer research but Mikael Dolsten said on Monday his firm had now put together a strong portfolio of experimental immuno-oncology treatments.

The deal for Merck's MSB0010718C -- part of a class of drugs known as anti-PD-L1 therapies that block a tumor's ability to evade the immune system -- means Pfizer will compete with other "first wave" developers of PD-L1 or related PD-1 drugs, Dolsten said.

"It gives a tremendous acceleration for Pfizer," Dolsten said in a telephone interview. "I would see this partnership making us highly competitive within the first wave of immuno-oncology."

In addition to sharing rights to Merck's drug, for which Pfizer is paying $850 million upfront and up to $2 billion based on future success, Pfizer also has other drugs designed to "check" different parts of the immune system.

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"It's part of a long-term commitment to immuno-oncology, so you will see Pfizer introduce every year for quite some time new immuno-onoclogy drugs, either new checkpoint antibodies, vaccines or bi-functional antibodies," Dolsten said.

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Citing British takeover rules, he declined to comment on what the tie-up with Merck meant for Pfizer's interest in similar cancer medicine from AstraZeneca <AZN.L>, which rejected a $118 billion bid from the U.S. group in May.

As well as being somewhat later in the development process than rival drugs -- particularly from U.S.-based Merck & Co (MRK) and Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY) -- Merck KGaA's has also been linked with lymphopenia, or abnormally low levels of white blood cells called lymphocytes in some patients.

However, Dolsten said he did not believe this was a clinically significant concern. "We don't see that as an issue," he said.

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)