Bristol-Myers Squibb and Nektar Therapeutics have signed a deal to develop and commercialise the latter’s lead immuno-oncology programme, NKTR-214, in combination with other anticancer therapies, on the back of the success of a previous clinical trials pact.

The parties intend to jointly develop and commercialise NKTR-214 in combination with BMS’ Opdivo (nivolumab) and Opdivo plus Yervoy (ipilimumab) in more than 20 indications across nine tumor types, as well as potential combinations with other anti-cancer agents.

Pivotal studies in renal cell carcinoma and melanoma are expected to be start around the middle of this year.

Opdivo is designed to overcome immune suppression, while NKTR-214 is designed to expand specific cancer-fighting T cells and natural killer cells directly in the tumour micro-environment and increase expression of PD-1 on these immune cells.

Commenting on its interest in the deal, Giovanni Caforio, BMS’ chairman and chief executive, said: “With this commitment to the development of NKTR-214, an investigational therapy designed with a unique approach to harnessing the full potential of the interleukin-2 pathway, we now have a third validated [immune-oncology] mechanism that has demonstrated a clinical benefit in patients, and holds significant potential to expand the benefits that these immuno-oncology agents can bring to patients with cancer.”

Howard Robin, Nektar’s president and chief executive, said: “NKTR-214’s ability to grow tumor infiltrating lymphocytes (TILs) in vivo and replenish the immune system is critically important as many patients battling cancer lack sufficient TIL populations to benefit from approved checkpoint inhibitor therapies.

“This strategic collaboration allows us to very quickly develop NKTR-214 with the leading approved PD-1 immune checkpoint inhibitor in numerous registrational trials.”

Under the terms of the deal, BMS will pay Nektar $1.85 billion upfront, comprised of $1.0 billion in cash and the purchase of around8.28 million shares of Nektar stock at $102.60 per share. The companies will share global profits on NKTR-214, with Nektar receiving 65 percent and BMS 35 percent.

The move follows a clinical trials pact signed by the firms in September 2016 for research on combining the PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor with the immuno-stimulator.