Merck, Pfizer and Verastem have sealed a deal to assess the potential of combining their drugs to treat ovarian cancer. 

The firms will evaluate a combination of avelumab, a fully human anti-PD-L1 IgG1 monoclonal antibody being developed by Pfizer and Merck, and Verastem’s VS-6063, a focal adhesion kinase (FAK) inhibitor, in patients with advanced forms of the disease. 

By inhibiting PD-L1 interactions, avelumab is thought to enable the activation of T-cells and the adaptive immune system. FAK is a protein often overproduced in tumours, enabling cancer cells to evade attack by the immune system. Its inhibition is believed to increase the presence of cytotoxic T cells in the tumour as well as decrease the presence of immunosuppressive cells.

“Combination strategies in immuno-oncology offer significant promise for patients in need. Through our collaboration with Verastem, we hope to accelerate our understanding of avelumab and its potential as a combination therapy with FAK inhibition for patients fighting ovarian cancer,” said Alise Reicin, head of Global Clinical Development at Merck’s biopharma business.

The Phase I/Ib clinical trial is expected to start in the second half of this year. 

Financial terms of the agreement have not been disclosed.