Cancer drugsThe recent announcement that Merck and ImmunoGen will partner to investigate a combination of their respective drugs, Keytruda and mirvetuximab soravtansine, for the treatment of ovarian cancer, will "open the way to unlocking the potential of combining novel immuno-oncology (IO) and non-IO drugs", according to a specialist oncology analyst.

The combination, if successful, will be used specifically in folate receptor alpha (FRA)-positive ovarian cancer patients. Mirvetuximab soravtansine specifically targets cells that express FRA, and Merck hopes this therapeutic mechanism of action, when used in combination with Keytruda, will enhance the efficacy of the latter and allow immune cells to further infiltrate the tumor - an approach that has been associated with improved outcomes in other cancers.

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GlobalData’s Analyst covering Oncology and Hematology Marc Hansel Ph.D said: “Combining two IO therapies is a well-established research and development strategy that large and small firms alike are adopting in their cancer drug development programs, and has recently proved successful in other oncological treatment spaces.

"However, companies should not discount the potential of IO and non-IO combinations, especially when an agent exhibits the ability to indirectly enhance the immune response or immune cell ability to penetrate the tumor."

Merck, AstraZeneca, and EMD Serono/Pfizer are strong examples of firms that are championing IO and non-IO combination therapy in ovarian cancer. Merck and EMD Serono/Pfizer aim to leverage outside alliances in order to mitigate risks associated with these kinds of trials. Pfizer also paired up with Syndax Pharmaceuticals in order to evaluate avelumab and entinostat in heavily pre-treated, recurrent ovarian cancer.

AstraZeneca, on the other hand, plans to maximize profit potential with in-house developed products, as exemplified by its efforts to combine drugs such as tremelimumab and Lynparza.

"Ultimately, developers of both IO and non-IO drugs alike should find ways to form alliances to truly unlock the potential of oncology combination therapy. Perhaps then, the shift in treatment paradigms can result in more significant progress in the fight against cancer,” Hansel concluded.