Tag-Teaming Melanoma for Fun and Profit

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Rather than compete against each other, Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY  ) and Roche are teaming up to fight melanoma. Sounds like a win-win-win for Bristol, Roche, and patients alike.

Bristol's Yervoy, which was recently approved in the U.S., will join forces with Roche's development-stage compound, vemurafenib, in trials to determine whether the two are more effective against skin cancer together than either is individually. Melanoma-related team-ups aren't unique; two years ago, Merck (NYSE: MRK  ) and AstraZeneca (NYSE: AZN  ) attempted a similar teaming.

Bristol's and Roche's drugs aren't competing directly yet, so it's a little hard to tell who will benefit more from the partnership. Presumably, the companies are sharing the clinical trial costs, although they didn't say whether it was a 50/50 split.

However, I'm guessing that Bristol benefits more than Roche. Vemurafenib is a specialized drug designed to treat about half of melanoma patients -- those with a mutation in a protein called BRAF. We'll get more information about the phase 3 trial results at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting this weekend, but that won't likely be enough to compare the efficacy of the two drugs. The clinical studies supporting Yervoy didn't look specifically at patients with BRAF mutations, so comparing the overall survival data between the two trials will be fairly meaningless.

Without much to go on, some doctors might pick vemurafenib over Yervoy in the patients with BRAF mutations, simply because it's designed to treat them. Proving that a combination works better could help Bristol gain back those patients.

The advantage for Roche would seem to lie in fighting off competition from other BRAF inhibitors coming up from behind. GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK  ) and Novartis (NYSE: NVS  ) both have BRAF inhibitors in development. By establishing that a combination product works, Roche can raise the bar that its competition must clear.

Investors should look for more of these kinds of deals in the future. Like many diseases, cancer is more easily controlled by attacking it from multiple angles.

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Fool contributor Brian Orelli holds no position in any company mentioned. Click here to see his holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of GlaxoSmithKline. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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  • Report this Comment On June 03, 2011, at 3:34 PM, AvianFlu wrote:

    As someone who just had skin cancer surgery (2nd time) I look forward to any new developments. Regrettably, with the disincentives and roadblocks devised by the federal government many promising treatments will never make it to market...or even off the drawing board. Free enterprise is the solution.

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