Merck KGaA and Cancer Research UK are teaming up in a deal which will see the charity conduct early trials on one of the German group’s experimental leukaemia and lymphoma drugs.

The compound in question, DI-B4, is a monoclonal antibody which binds to the CD19 protein, found on B-cells and is thought to recruit cells from the immune system to attack the tumour. One of the first drugs to be manufactured at CRUK’s new state-of-the-art, £20 million biotherapeutic development unit in London, it will be taken into a Phase I trial in around 20-40 patients with advanced B-cell lymphoma.

The trial will place at up to five hospitals across the UK and CRUK will fund the study through early clinical development. Merck will then have an option to take DI-B4 forward in exchange for future payments to the charity.

If the Darmstadt-based group decides not to proceed, the rights to the molecule will be given to CRUK’s commercial arm Cancer Research Technology (CRT) “to secure an alternative development partner”. The Merck link-up represents the fourth anti-cancer drug in the charity's clinical development partnerships programme, set up in 2006. Other pacts are in place with GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca and Astex Therapeutics.

Keith Blundy, CRT’s chief executive, said that “in an increasingly competitive market place, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies have to focus strategically on certain areas of research and hold back on others”. He added that the Merck deal “demonstrates how we can work together to progress cancer drugs”.