Looking to build Darzalex a bigger market, J&J teams up with Roche for atezo combo trials

Immuno-oncology drugmakers Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and Merck ($MRK) have been quick to start up combination studies in an effort to expand the reach of their treatments and get ahead in an already heated market race. But other horses are preparing to enter the contest--and they've locked down more combo trials of their own.

On Monday, Johnson & Johnson's ($JNJ) Janssen unit announced it would team up with Roche's ($RHHBY) Genentech on two studies pairing its brand-new multiple myeloma drug, Darzalex, with the Swiss pharma giant's highly anticipated PD-L1 prospect, atezolizumab. Janssen will foot the bill for a Phase Ib trial looking at pairing the two drugs in patients with solid tumors, while Genentech will sponsor a Phase Ib study assessing atezo in tandem with Darzalex, Darzalex and Celgene's ($CELG) Revlimid, and Darzalex and Celgene's Pomalyst in patients with relapsed or refractory multiple myeloma.

While Roche's treatment is generating plenty of hype--it's impressed big-time in bladder cancer, and last week it snagged the FDA's priority review designation for treating advanced forms of that disease--it'll be playing catch-up to Bristol-Myers Squibb's Opdivo and Merck's Keytruda when it comes to PD-1/PD-L1 market share. Both of those treatments won melanoma go-aheads from the FDA in 2014, and they've been jockeying for position and racing to rack up additional indications ever since. Morningstar analysts have predicted that by 2022, Bristol-Myers Squibb will hoard a 37% piece of the pie, with Merck boasting 26% and Roche nabbing 21%.

And so the Basel-based company has wasted no time in pairing up for studies. In addition to examining atezolizumab as part of cocktails with its own meds--including melanoma treatment Zelboraf--it's gotten together with rival cancer drugmakers such as Amgen ($AMGN), which last summer announced a combo study pairing atezolizumab with its Imlygic.

Meanwhile, results from the studies could also eventually boost Janssen, which is in the process of entering a crowded myeloma field. After winning an FDA thumbs up last November, the company said it would undercut Celgene's Pomalyst with a $135,000 price tag in an effort to knock the med aside in the market-share scrum.

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