The last month has been significant for Merck down under.

On Feb 21, the company announced the acquisition of Viralytics, an Australian biotech specializing in the development of oncolyptic immunotherapies.

Fast forward a matter of weeks, Immutep, another biotech based in Sydney, revealed it had formed a partnership with Merck to trial a combination product and its effect on multiple tumors.

Both moves are symbolic in that they strengthen Merck’s presence in Australia as the company expands its vast immuno-oncology portfolio.

Merck’s Acquisition a Statement of Intent

In the case of Viralytics, which Merck acquired for $394 million, the company now gains control over the biotech’s immunotherapy drug, Cavatak. Currently in the phase I and phase II stage, Cavatak is being tested in combination with Merck’s Keytruda, its leading CAR-T therapy.

Dr. Roy Baynes, senior vice president, global clinical development, Merck Research Laboratories, believes the coming together of Merck and Viralytics makes sense, both therapeutically and strategically. In a press release, Baynes said:

“Viralytics’ approach of engaging the innate immune system to target and kill cancer cells complements our immuno-oncology strategy, which is focused on the rapid advancement of innovative monotherapy approaches and synergistic combinations to help the broadest range of cancer patients.

“We are eager to further build on Viralytics’ science as we continue our efforts to harness the immune system to improve long-term disease control and survival outcomes for people with cancer.”

Immutep Partnership Further Strengthens Merck’s Hand in Australia

After Merck’s acquisition of Viralytics, it probably came as no surprise to keen observers when Immutep announced its collaboration with the company on March 12.

The main aim of the partnership is to evaluate the safety and efficacy of its combination product in patients with non-small cell lung cancer, head and neck cancer, and ovarian cancer. The product is a combination of the company’s candidate, eftilagimod alpha, and Merck’s Keytruda.

According to Immutep, the company intends to recruit 120 patients in medical centers across Europe and the U.S. for each indication. It will be tested in phase II studies due to begin in the second half of 2018.

For Merck, partnering with Immutep was a similarly sensible move as it strengthened their hand in Australia’s oncology space.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether more ‘big pharma’ companies will seek to make inroads in the country. For Merck, they’ve now stolen a march on their closest rivals while upping the stakes in the ongoing fight against cancer.