Merck & Co and Amgen are expanding their existing collaboration to test a combination of their respective immunotherapies Keytruda and T-VEC in patients with head and neck cancer.  

The Phase I open-label trial will involve patients with recurrent or metastatic squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN) and investigate whether the two medicines - which have very different and potentially complementary modes of action - might offer a new treatment option for the disease.

While both work by harnessing the body’s own defence mechanisms, T-VEC (talimogene laherparepvec) is designed to selectively replicate only in tumours to spark an immune response against cancer cells, while Keytruda blocks the interaction between PD-1 (programmed death receptor-1) and its ligands, PD-L1 and PD-L2, to activate the immune system to attack tumours.

The firms also announced the start of a global, randomised Phase III trial evaluating the combination in patients with regionally or distantly metastatic melanoma, following a Phase I, open-label trial in this patient population.

The move is yet another indication that the recent pace of cancer immunotherapy deals shows no sign of slowing, as drugmakers strive to bag a slice of a market that, according to the Wall Street Journal, analysts are predicting could rake in annual sales of $20 billion-$30 billion in the next 10 years.