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Broad cancer collaboration
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Ariad Pharmaceuticals and Merck & Co. announced in early July that the two companies will jointly develop and commercialize AP23573, Ariad's novel mTOR inhibitor, as a treatment for a variety of cancers. The drug is slated to begin Phase III clinical trials within the next month for the treatment of mestastatic sarcomas.
Under the terms of the agreement, Merck will make an upfront payment of $75 million to Ariad, and could eventually end up paying a total of more than $727 million based on milestones and the initiation of additional Phase II and Phase III trials.
But the Phase III trials for sarcoma could eventually only be a small scratch in the surface of what may become a broad-based collaboration targeting a number of different oncologies, say officials at both companies.
"This is a high-value and validated oncology target with very high interest in the industry," says Richard Pascoe, chief commercial officer of Ariad. "Specifically, it is known that mTOR serves as a 'master switch' which has a central function in cancer cell growth, division and metabolism. This is a drug that has great potential and the really nice thing about this deal with Merck, is that they are just as excited about it as we have been for some time."
Equally important for Ariad in this deal was the fact that it will be much more involved in the sale of the AP236573 in the U.S. than is typical of these kinds of collaborations with deep-pocketed large pharma companies.
"Ariad will lead the distribution and book all sales of the product in the U.S. market," notes Pascoe. "This is very important for us as a company as we look to become forward integrated and prepare to develop other drugs that are currently in our pipeline. Clearly, the fact that there are multiple cancers involved really helped create this situation with Merck."
For Merck, it now locks up the market potential of a drug that has been shown to be well-tolerated and with an impressive safety profile as shown by earlier studies.
Vlad Hogenhuis, GM, oncology, specialty and neuroscience franchise at Merck notes that AP23573 "has the promise to allow us to bring an important new medicine to cancer patients globally. Merck is fully committed to the field of oncology, and this partnership further demonstrates that commitment as we strive to meet unmet medical needs in cancer."
While there is excitement about the AP23573 program, there are plenty of other companies with keen interest in mTOR inhibitors. Notably, Wyeth's mTOR inhbitor Torisel was approved in late May as a treatment for kidney cancer, and Novartis has its own mTOR drug RAD001, an oral kinase inhibitor that blocks the mTOR protein, currently in Phase I to III trials as a treatment for multiple tumor types.
The field may be crowded for mTOR cancer drugs, but there are sure to be multiple winners. Neither Merck nor Ariad officials would hazard a guess on the potential size of the market considering the number of different forms of cancer these drugs could treat. Suffice to say, with potentially nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars at stake from Merck alone, you have to believe they're saying the word "blockbuster" in the back rooms of big pharma.