Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany
Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany

Immuno-oncology: investigating cancer therapies powered by the immune system

Immuno-oncology focuses on harnessing the body’s immune system to mount an immune response against cancer.

“Cancer is just a stone’s throw away from touching each and every one of us – either as a patient fighting the ugly six letter word, as caregivers or advocates fighting on behalf of the patient to get the care they need, or as health care professionals fighting for better treatments for their patients.
At our company, we’re fighting to help change the direction of cancer care as we know it. Through our immuno-oncology platform, we are building our pipeline, galvanizing our collaborators and working to develop true innovation to not only treat the symptoms of cancer, but to prolong life and ensure that each and every patient receives the right treatment at the right time.”
– Luciano Rossetti, Global Head of R&D

After years of building momentum, immuno-oncology (IO) is on the cusp of a surge forward with the potential of improved outcomes and better quality of life moving closer to reality. We are deeply committed to changing the cancer landscape, working at the intersection of immunology and oncology. Our IO research and development platform focuses on potential new therapies intended to harness the immune system and activate or augment the body’s natural response to fight cancer.
IO history

IO history

The idea of IO per se is not new – bacteria were being injected directly into tumor tissue in the nineteenth century to stimulate the immune system to fight cancer. Real breakthroughs in this field, however, have only been witnessed in the past few years with the development of IO compounds. These advancements represent a “quantum leap” for cancer therapy.
Future of IO

Future of IO

Cancer is tremendously complex. We are drawing on 20 years of experience to re-imagine IO – exploring an array of targets selectively focusing on the modalities with the best chance of making a real difference to patients’ lives, and taking creative scientific approaches to change the way cancer care is delivered.
This comprehensive, science-driven strategy for our IO platform focuses on novel, differentiated therapeutic targets developed from our study of the immune system. These areas of focus include:
  • Releasing the breaks on suppressed anti-tumor responses
  • Remodelling the tumor microenvironment to eradicate the tumor
  • Re-engaging the immune system to find silent tumor cells when the tumor lacks infiltrating immune cells
  • Researching novel biomarkers in collaboration with academic oncology centers
  • Identifying novel drug resistance pathways including Immune check point inhibitors
IO pipeline

IO pipeline

Our journey in IO is characterized by bold thinking, formative decisions, and an unrelenting drive to find new treatment options for cancer patients. Our IO translational innovation platform, which accelerates the highest-quality science, includes a portfolio comprising therapeutic candidates in clinical development and a transformative pipeline of preclinical molecules. Lead investigational candidates in clinical development include:*
Avelumab – Discovered by Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, and now being developed as part of a strategic collaboration with Pfizer, avelumab is an investigational, fully human antibody specific for a protein found on tumor cells called PD-L1, or programmed death ligand-1. Avelumab is thought to have a dual mechanism of action which may enable the immune system to find and attack cancer cells.
M7824 – a potentially first-in-class bifunctional immunotherapy in clinical trials designed to simultaneously block two immuno-inhibitory pathways (PD-L1 and transforming growth factor beta) that are commonly used by cancer cells to evade the immune system. The aim of this investigational drug is to control tumor growth by restoring and enhancing anti-tumor immune responses.
M9241 (NHS-IL12) – an investigational cancer immunotherapy that is designed to target the DNA fragments released from the dead and dying (necrotic) cells found in the context of many solid tumors. The interleukin 12 (IL-12) part of the molecule is a genetically modified variant of the natural cytokine.
Our collaborations & partnerships

Our collaborations & partnerships

Scientific excellence requires the right mix of intuition and collaboration. Whilst the majority of our oncology pipeline molecules have been discovered in-house, we believe the creative process also benefits from collaborations externally. We have a strong network of alliances and so we have supplemented our expertise with leading thinkers from oncology centers of excellence, and industry and biotech innovators from partner organizations. Here is a selection of our collaborations:
Our Pfizer Alliance
The global strategic alliance with Pfizer enables the companies to benefit from each other’s strengths and capabilities and further explore the therapeutic potential of avelumab. The alliance will jointly develop and commercialize avelumab and advance Pfizer’s PD-1 antibody.
Vertex: DNA damage and repair
Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany entered a licensing agreement  with Vertex Pharmaceuticals for the worldwide development and commercialization of two clinical-stage programs that represent first-in-class approaches to inhibit the DNA repair pathways as well as two pre-clinical programs including one immuno-oncology program against an attractive target with first-in-class potential, and a program against a completely novel target.
Domain Therapeutics: adenosine receptor antagonists
An important collaboration and licensing  agreement includes the development of adenosine receptor antagonists specifically designed for oncology and immuno-oncology. Adenosine has been identified as a key component in resistance mechanisms for many tumors targeted by immune checkpoint inhibitors.
MorphoSys: therapeutic antibodies
A strategic IO collaboration  with MorphoSys aims to discover and develop therapeutic antibodies against immune checkpoints, applying MorphoSys’ proprietary Ylanthia® antibody phage library and technology platform to identify antibodies against targets of interest. With a strong portfolio and capabilities in the field of IO, Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, are fully responsible for development from Phase I onwards.
Intrexon: CAR-Ts
A collaboration with Intrexon aims to develop and commercialize Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-cell (CAR-T) cancer therapies. This advances our companies comprehensive, science-driven strategy to develop innovative therapies that modulate the immune system's natural ability to fight tumors.
Dako: companion diagnostic 
Our Alliance with Pfizer and Dako announced  a collaboration agreement to develop a companion diagnostic test to assess programmed death-ligand 1 (PD-L1) protein expression levels.
Illumina: oncology diagnostic
A strategic alliance  with Illumina, Inc., will expand the development of a universal next-generation sequencing-based oncology diagnostic for clinical trials of targeted cancer therapies.
We have also announced strategic collaborations with Debiopharm, Verastem, Syndax and Vaccinex on individual cancer trials evaluating our compounds in combination with other investigational compounds.

*Pipeline products are under clinical investigation and have not been proven to be safe and effective. There is no guarantee any product will be approved in the sought-after indication

Media Center

Media Center

Are you a journalist looking for more information on Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, in IO? Go to our oncology media center to access the latest press releases and media downloads.

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