How immunotherapy 2.0 has been shaping corporate acquisition strategy: the Merck-Rigontec deal

Allan B. Haberman, Ph.D

PD-1 extracellular domain


As noted in our 2017 Insight Pharma Report, “Cancer Immunotherapy: Building on Initial Successes to Improve Clinical Outcomes” the most successful class of immunotherapeutics continues to be that of the checkpoint inhibitors (discussed in Chapter 2 of our report).

Immune checkpoints refer to a large number of inhibitory pathways in the immune system, especially those that block the response of T cells to antigens. Marketed checkpoint inhibitors are all monoclonal antibodies (mAbs). The two leading checkpoint inhibitors, both of which target PD-1, are pembrolizumab (Merck’s Keytruda), and nivolumab, (Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo), both approved by the FDA in 2014. Of these two, Keytruda has become the market leader during 2016/2017, after a long process of competition with BMS’ Opdivo..

On July 26, 2017, Forbes published a long article by David Shaywitz MD, PhD, entitled “The Startling History Behind Merck’s New Cancer Blockbuster”. This article is a complete history of Keytruda, from discovery through commercialization. As discussed in this article, Roger Perlmutter MD PhD (who became head of Merck Research Labs during the process of development of Keytruda) redirected virtually all work at Merck towards the Keytruda program. He determined that Keytruda was more valuable than the entire rest of Merck’s portfolio put together. Dr. Perlmutter essentially bet both his own career and Merck’s enterprise on the Keytruda program.

Merck has been engaging in an aggressive R&D and commercialization program for Keytruda. In the second quarter of 2017, Keytruda achieved three accelerated approvals and one full approval in the U.S., a recommendation in the EU, and a 180% increase in sales. As of September 2017, Merck has over 550 clinical trials evaluating Keytruda in more than 30 tumor types.

As expected for such an aggressive program, not all of Merck’s efforts have been successful. Three of the company’s combination trials of Keytruda, with Celgene’s Revlimid (lenalidomide) or Pomalyst (pomalidomide) plus dexamethasone in multiple myeloma, have been on hold because of an excess number of deaths in the treatment arm. Merck also had a missed endpoint in recurrent or metastatic head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) in the KEYNOTE-040 trial. Despite this, Keytruda has held onto its accelerated approval for this indication, and other HNSCC trials are ongoing.

Merck’s acquisition of Rigontec

Keytuda has become as much a platform as a product for Merck. This is illustrated by the recent acquisition by Merck of the German company Rigontec for $150 million in cash and another $453 million in milestones payments. According to John Carroll’s Endpoints News, this is an example of how Merck’s Perlmutter likes to augment the work being done around Keytruda with the occasional add-on.

Mr. Carroll refers to the Rigontec deal as a “bolt-on” acquisition. In a “bolt-on” acquisition, a platform company (such as Merck) with the management capabilities, infrastructure and systems that allows for organic or acquisition growth will look for acquisition of smaller companies “that provide complementary services, technology or geographic footprint diversification and can be quickly integrated into the existing management infrastructure.”

Rigontec’s technology platform is based on developing agents that mimic viral infections. Specifically, double-stranded viral RNA is recognized by pattern recognition receptors called RIG-I-like helicases (RLH) that are present in the cytoplasm. Synthetic RLH ligands (such as those being developed by Rigontec) working via RLH initiate a signaling cascade that leads to an antiviral response program, characterized by the production of type I interferon (IFN) and other innate immune response genes. RLH signaling also induces apoptosis in tumor cells. Finally, exposure of CD8alpha+ dendritic cells (DCs) to RLH-activated apoptotic tumor cells induces DC maturation, efficient antigen uptake and cross-presentation of tumor-associated antigens to naive CD8+ T cells.

The exploitation of the RLH system thus constitutes a potential means to activate tumor-specific CD8+ T cells. As discussed in our 2017 Insight Pharma report, checkpoint inhibitors work by reactivating intratumoral T-cells, especially CD8+ cytotoxic T cells. Rigontec’s agents may work to render “cold” tumors inflamed (specifically, with DCs and CD8+ T cells), thus making them more susceptible to the antitumor action of checkpoint inhibitors such as Keytruda. This type of strategy, as discussed in our report, is a major theme of “second wave” immuno-oncology, or “immuno-oncology 2.0.”

However, so far the potential use of Rigontec’s RLH ligands in cancer therapy is based on studies in preclinical tumor models for melanoma, ovarian cancer and pancreatic cancer. Currently, Rigontec has been sponsoring a first-in-humans Phase 1/2 trial of its lead RIG-1 agonist, RGT100, in solid tumors and lymphoma (clinical trial number NCT03065023). This study is designed to assess “safety, tolerability and pharmacokinetics of RGT100 in patients with injectable solid tumor lesions”. In the absence of evidence for clinical efficacy in human cancer patients, the Merck acquisition of Rigontec is a speculative deal. However, upfront Merck’s investment in Rigontec is small, and it gives Merck access to a new mechanism of action, which is complementary to the larger company’s strategy and current pipeline.

Other immunotherapy 2.0 approaches designed to enhance the effectiveness of checkpoint inhibitors

As noted in our 2017 Insight Pharma Report, although checkpoint inhibitors such as Keytruda have achieved spectacular success in treating some patients, they do not work for the majority of patients. Even in the case of melanoma, where checkpoint inhibitors have shown the greatest degree of efficacy, these agents only cure 20% of patients. Therefore, numerous researchers and companies are working to discover and develop complementary “immunotherapy 2.0” treatments to enhance the efficacy of checkpoint inhibitors in various classes of cancer patients. Rigontec’s technology represents only one such approach.

In a recent article published (Sep 7, 2017) in FierceBiotech, writer Arlene Weintraub discussed two companion treatments that might potentially enhance the effectiveness of checkpoint inhibitors. One of these treatments, discovered by scientists at Columbia University Medical Center, is a drug that’s already on the market: pentoxifylline, which is used to increase blood flow in patients with poor circulation. Pentoxifylline’s activity in cancer immunology is based on its inhibition of NF-kB c-Rel.  This results in the inhibition of regulatory T cells (Tregs) in the tumor mcroenvironment. In mouse models, inhibition of c-Rel function by pentoxifylline delayed melanoma growth by impairing Treg-mediated immunosuppression, and thus and potentiated the effects of anti-PD-1 immunotherapy. Adverse effects, such as the induction of autoimmunity that would be expected if the treatment caused global inhibition of Tregs, were not seen. Once again, these studies in mice await confirmation via human clinical trials; such human trials are currently planned.

The other experimental immunotherapy 2.0 approach discussed in Ms. Weintraub’s article involves combining an oncoloytic virus [the modified vaccinia virus Ankara (MVA)] with a checkpoint inhibitor. Once again, the example discussed in this article was in mouse models. As in other immunotherapy 2.0 approaches, the goal is to enable the immune system to recognize the tumor as foreign by injecting the oncolytic virus into it, thus prompting a CD8+ T-cell response. Checkpoint inhibitors might then reactivate the intratumoral T cells, inducing an antitumor response. These studies were also carried out in mouse models, and human trials are planned.

Our report, “Cancer Immunotherapy: Building on Initial Successes to Improve Clinical Outcomes”, also includes discussions of the use of oncolytic viruses to boost the anticancer efficacy of checkpoint inhibitors. Some of these approaches (such as studies of combinations of Amgen’s Imlygic (talimogene laherparepvec), an FDA-approved modified oncolytic virus therapy, with checkpoint inhibitors), are already in human studies.

Also in our report is a discussion of treatments being developed by NewLink Genetics designed to modulate the IDO (indoleamine-pyrrole 2,3-dioxygenase) pathway. Such compounds are designed to reverse IDO-mediated immune suppression. IDO pathway inhibitors may complement the use of anti- PD-1and/or anti-PD-L1 checkpoint inhibitors. The same Endpoints News article that discusses the Merck/Rigontec acquisition  also mentions an earlier Merck bolt-on deal—the 2016 acquisition of IOmet. IOmet also works on IDO pathway inhibitors.

More generally, our 2017 Insight Pharma Report contains a wealth of potential immunotherapy 2.0 approaches. Importantly, this includes an “immunotherapy 2.0” approach to cancer vaccine development, which emphasizes combinations of cancer vaccines with checkpoint inhibitors. This may both enhance the efficacy of checkpoint inhibitors, and reverse the high rate of failure of cancer vaccines. Other immunotherapy 2.0 strategies discussed in our report may well make the news over the next several years, in terms of corporate deals and product approvals. Our report is thus well worth reading for those who are interested in the further devlelopment of immuno-oncology.

For more information on our report, Cancer Immunotherapy: Building on Initial Successes to Improve Clinical Outcomes, or to order it, see the CHI Insight Pharma Reports website.


As the producers of this blog, and as consultants to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, Haberman Associates would like to hear from you. If you are in a biotech or pharmaceutical company, and would like a 15-20-minute, no-obligation telephone discussion of issues raised by this or other blog articles, or of other issues that are important to your company, please contact us by phone or e-mail. We also welcome your comments on this or any other article on this blog.

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