Merck and AstraZeneca: An Uncommon Deal Indeed

Includes: AZN, MRK
by: Derek Lowe

Well, the ASCO meeting has been roaring along, with dozens of press releases coming out. (Go to Google News and type that acronym in if you want to get the full experience.) They range from the pretty-interesting to the despair-inducing, but one bit of news struck me as particularly worth noting. That's the early-stage deal between Merck (NYSE:MRK) and AstraZeneca (NYSE:AZN) to combine two of their development candidates in a Phase I trial.

That's Merck's AKT inhibitor MK-2206 and AZ's Mek inhibitor AZD6244, and there's room to think that combining those two mechanisms could be beneficial. But as that In Vivo Blog link details, this deal wasn't initiated through any official contact between the two companies. Rather, someone from Merck and someone from AZ got to talking while they were going through airport security in Dublin, and recognized each other's names. A mere year and a half later, the deal was born.

There's a lot to learn from that story. For one, big drug companies are not, for the most part, looking to do early-stage deals with other big drug companies. Perhaps we'll see more of these in the future, but in general, it's about the least likely form of partnership. Another thing to note is how long it took for this idea to bear fruit. Eighteen months is about right for companies of this size to make up their minds about something like this - and you can decide that (since the oncology field is so complicated) that this is a reasonable period of evaluation, or you can decide, equally objectively, that delays of that magnitude remind you of a sauropod turning around in puzzlement three hours after something bit its tail.

I'm impressed that the deal was made at all. The usual path for new ideas of this sort is to the graveyard, especially in very large organizations, so I have to assume that some people within each company must have really pushed things along to make it happen. It's part of the general bias toward inaction: it's harder to get beaten up for decisions that you didn't make, compared to decisions that you did. Missed opportunities are often invisible.

So, no matter how long it took, or even whether it works out, I still have to congratulate the people involved in getting this agreement to happen. It's worthwhile, I think, just because it's the sort of thing that doesn't happen very often. And I have the feeling that (in the coming years) we're going to have to explore a lot of things in this industry that haven't happened very often. We'll need the practice.