Merck & Co has signed a clinical trials pact with German biopharma Affimed that will test a combination of two immunotherapies for Hodgkin lymphoma.

Under the deal, Affimed will fund and conduct a Phase Ib clinical trial to assess the potential of combining Merck's anti-PD-1 therapy Keytruda (pembrolizumab) with Affimed's experimental AFM13 for the treatment of patients whose disease has relapsed or is refractory to chemotherapy.

The aim of the trial, which is on track to start in the first half of this year, is to establish a dosing regimen for the combination therapy and assess its safety and efficacy.

AFM13 is a bispecific antibody targeting CD30, an antigen specifically expressed in a variety of T- and B-cell lymphomas and targeting CD16A, an antigen expressed on natural killer cells, which are key to activation of the immune system and subsequent killing of tumour cells. Keytruda, an approved treatment for melanoma and lung cancer, is a humanised monoclonal antibody that works by increasing the ability of the body's immune system to help detect and fight tumour cells.

In patient-derived xenograft models, AFM13, in combination with an anti-PD-1 antibody, demonstrated impressive synergy with up to 90 percent of the tumour eradicated, sparking hope that the coupling could offer a future treatment option for patients.

Additional details of the deal were kept under wraps, but it was noted that the collaboration agreement can be expanded to include a subsequent Phase III clinical trial.