There’s a world of possibility out there
Immuno-oncology includes a range of approaches designed to boost or reactivate the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. In the last few years, promising clinical outcomes and new types and combinations of medicines are quickly changing the landscape of cancer treatments. This has caused a flurry of excitement, both in academia and in the biopharmaceutical industry, and along with it, incredible amounts of financial investment.
This means that, even as the oldest pharmaceutical company with a long heritage of success, we need to be creative in order to rise above the competition, which is much stronger today than it was just 10 years ago when we were an early mover in immuno-oncology.
To guide our efforts, I balance two hats, one more science-based, and the other more business driven. Both, however, rely heavily on identifying external innovative ideas, technologies and assets.
Scouting for great ideas
I head up the Translational Innovation Platform of Immuno-Oncology, which is the backbone of this pipeline. We provide ideas and translate them into drug candidates. We comb through literature, engage with our key thought leaders and attend conferences to gather these ideas.
We work together in an iterative process with Discovery Technologies. According to our specifications, they create compounds, which we test in biological assays. We tell them which work best. They then optimize and we re-test. This goes on until we’ve optimized a molecule that can be nominated as a development candidate. Even after we hand over our candidates to the Oncology Development department, we support them with evidence for selecting patient populations, testing potential drug combinations and helping make sense of clinical data.
Differentiating ourselves in increasing competition
The culture of collaboration at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany sets us apart. It requires a measure of risk to integrate external innovation. As the global head of External Innovation, I enable my team to identify and bring in external opportunities for all therapeutic areas across the entire drug discovery pipeline, from early discovery research to development to post-approval of a medicine. Over the last two-to-three years, we’ve adjusted our strategy to be able to pick the best candidates for
full development as early as possible. A full development decision is very important and very costly. Once you reach full development and something goes wrong, it’s usually a binary choice: you can either keep going or stop the entire project. So, we altered our strategy to deepen our understanding earlier in the process with the goal of being able to pick the winners before approaching full development.
The good news is that our strategy is showing results. Our portfolio is broader and now we have a good problem: We have too many promising projects. We cannot handle everything internally and do justice to the quality of each project, so we need to choose. We can pick a few projects that we feel will maximize the use of our budget and resources; we can stop the few projects that clearly aren’t going to add value; and for projects where we don’t have expertise, we can proactively approach partners for codevelopment.
Collaboration is a must
By contributing to the progress of immuno-oncology for the benefit of cancer patients, we and others are constantly raising the bar for innovation. Therefore, we look to partnerships that further strengthen and complement our attributes. We see roughly 1000 opportunities every year, and although it’s tempting, we remain focused on our key areas and strategy. We generally pursue about 10 of these opportunities a year with a breakthrough potential, aiming to build relationships that go well beyond the initial collaboration.
Cancer and cancer treatments are incredibly complex, and it’s essential that we partner and codevelop, especially in areas where we think the potential is broader than we can explore. At Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, we’re contributing to the shape of the immuno-oncology landscape and we’re open to collaborations that are untraditional, that require vision and contain some uncertainty. There’s a world of possibility out there.
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