ASCO: Merck and its new multibillion-dollar partners hone plans for marketing onslaught

CHICAGO—Merck, arguably the belle of the ball at this year’s American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting, spent its on-stage time with major new data for its immuno-oncology star, Keytruda. But behind the scenes, it was huddled up with teams from its new multibillion-dollar partners, AstraZeneca and Eisai.

Since last year's ASCO meeting, the New Jersey pharma giant inked an $8.5 billion deal for half of AstraZeneca's ovarian and breast cancer drug Lynparza and a $5.8 billion pact for half of Eisai’s kidney cancer drug Lenvima, both of which it’s testing in tandem with Keytruda. But because it’s also sharing half the sales those products make on their own, it’s throwing its own resources behind them.

RELATED: AstraZeneca, Merck team up on Lynparza combos in collaboration worth up to $8.5B

By adding its own strength to Lynparza, Merck has doubled the size of AstraZeneca’s sales force. And the companies’ work has already paid off, said Olivier Nataf, AstraZeneca’s VP of U.S. oncology, pointing to its recent rollout of the drug in breast cancer.

“We came together and right away, we had a launch,” he said, adding that it’s “gone really well.”

Both companies have also prioritized Lynparza’s original indication in ovarian cancer, so “we both collaborate on both tumors,” he said, noting that “there’s not one” tumor that “has priority over the other.”

If all goes the companies’ way, they could add prostate cancer to Lynparza’s list sooner rather than later; AstraZeneca is set to unveil data from a combination with Johnson & Johnson’s Zytiga later today.

RELATED: In another blockbuster cancer deal, Merck lays out up to $5.8B for half of Eisai's Lenvima

Meanwhile, over on the Eisai side, Merck isn’t matching Eisai’s 150-strong rep count, but it’ll be “complementing our efforts,” Michael Amoroso, SVP of the company’s oncology business group, said—and the Japanese drugmaker is “very excited” to bring some of its new partner’s expertise “to our customers and patients.”

Next week, 100 Merck sales and marketing folks will arrive at Eisai for Lenvima product training, and so far, Merck “really is working with us to fit into” what Amoroso called a “very customized approach to our customers and our physicians.”

Just as Merck and AstraZeneca did, Merck and Eisai could have a launch on their hands not long into their partnership. After a recent delay, the FDA is set to make a decision on Lenvima in liver cancer within the next three months, and the agency recently bestowed the Lenvima-Keytruda combo with its breakthrough designation in kidney cancer.

On that front, the duo put up positive data in both of those tumor types at ASCO, as well as in head and neck cancer and endrometrial cancer, Merck said.