Merck & Co is teaming up with fellow drugs giant Roche to sell the former's just-approved hepatitis C drug Victrelis and explore combination treatments for the disease.

First up, Roche will promote Victrelis (boceprevir), a first-in-class protease inhibitor approved days ago by the Food and Drug Administration, in the USA as part of a triple combination therapy regimen that includes the Swiss firm's injectable Pegasys (peginterferon alfa) and ribavirin. The companies say they will work together to educate physicians and patients about HCV, including diagnosis, and may extend the non-exclusive agreement to other developed and emerging markets.

In addition, researchers at Merck and Roche will collaborate to examine combinations of marketed and investigational medicines from both firms "to expedite the availability of potential new treatment regimens for patients with HCV". Pascal Soriot, chief operating officer at Roche's  pharmaceuticals division, noted that triple combination therapy "marks a major change in the way this disease is treated," as it offers better treatment outcomes.

Observers are saying that getting Roche on board is a master stroke by Merck, given that Vertex Pharmaceuticals' rival product Incivek (telaprevir) is expected to be approved by the FDA before the end of May.