Merck KGaA is not the mystery bidder on the verge of making a $70 per share offer for ImClone Systems but it is prepared to talk with any firm planning to buy the US biotechnology.

ImClone’s future is inextricably linked with the cancer drug Erbitux, which is where Merck comes into the mix. Bristol-Myers Squibb, which has offered $62 per share to buy the 83% of ImClone it does not already own, co-promotes Erbitux in the USA, but the Darmstadt-based group has marketing and development rights to the drug in most countries outside North America.

B-MS has had two offers rejected by ImClone, and the $62 per share bid was dismissed as “absurd” by the latter’s chairman Carl Icahn. The identity of the rival bidder will not be revealed until latter today but “we are not the white knight”, said Merck's chief executive Karl-Ludwig Kley.

Nevertheless, speaking to the International Club of Frankfurt Business Journalists, he noted that “if anyone contacts us to ask whether we want to participate, we will certainly listen carefully”. Mr Kley added that he does not know who is the mystery suitor but “I don't rule out us taking part" in any joint deal to run ImClone. He was also quoted as saying that “anyone who wants to take Erbitux further would be well advised to talk to us".

Any potential buyer would certainly have to take Merck’s views into account given the Erbitux link, which is currently approved for head and neck cancer. Indeed the German group has been responsible for a number of trials of the compound and has recently submitted an application to the European Medicines Agency for Erbitux as a first-line treatment for non-small cell lung cancer.

Phase II trial begins of new ImClone compound
Meantime, ImClone has announced that the first patient has been treated in a Phase II trial of IMC-1121B in patients with advanced ovarian cancer. The compound is a fully human, IgG1 anti-vascular growth factor receptor-2 monoclonal antibody.

The firm noted that other studies of IMC-1121B in patients with advanced melanoma, liver, renal and prostate cancers have begun to enroll “and additional Phase II and III evaluations are in various stages of development”.