$50M-plus deal helps AstraZeneca build cancer pipeline while enabling Merck to focus on two later-stage oncology candidates

AstraZeneca said today it will license from Merck & Co. its Phase IIa cancer drug candidate MK-1775. The $50 million-plus deal helps AstraZeneca build its pipeline in a core therapy area while enabling Merck to focus its oncology efforts on two later-stage experimental drugs.

Merck will receive a $50 million up-front fee from AstraZeneca, and could also receive future payments tied to undisclosed development and regulatory milestones, plus sales-related payments and tiered royalties. The agreement is contingent on expiration or termination of the waiting period under the Hart Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvement Act.

AstraZeneca will be responsible for all future clinical development, manufacturing, and marketing of MK-1775, an oral small molecule WEE1 kinase inhibitor designed to kill certain tumor cells by inducing their division without undergoing normal DNA repair processes. According to AstraZeneca, preclinical evidence suggests that a combination of MK-1775 and DNA damage-inducing chemotherapy agents can enhance antitumor properties compared with chemo alone.

“The compound has demonstrated encouraging clinical efficacy data, and we intend to study it in a range of cancer types where there is a high unmet medical need,” Susan Galbraith, head of AstraZeneca’s oncology innovative medicines unit, said in a statement. “MK-1775 is a strong addition to AstraZeneca’s growing oncology pipeline, which already includes a number of inhibitors of the DNA damage response.”

Oncology is one of AstraZeneca’s three core therapy areas, along with cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, and respiratory, inflammation, and autoimmunity diseases. CEO Pascal Soriot halved AstraZeneca’s core therapy areas to three in March, as part of a company restructuring designed to reverse years of clinical setbacks, and which included elimination of 3,900 additional jobs.

Iain D. Dukes, svp and head of licensing and external scientific affairs at Merck, said the licensing agreement will benefit his company by helping it realize the potential of MK-1775 while Merck focuses on advancing two of its later-stage oncology programs, MK-3475 and vintafolide.

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