Pfizer joins rush to cancer vaccine R&D, backing startup Ignite

Cancer vaccines are making a comeback, and Pfizer has partnered up with a startup in the field. The drug giant will back Ignite Immunotherapy's efforts to combine its own candidates with checkpoint inhibitors for a one-two punch against the disease.

Pfizer has taken a 50% equity stake in the new company and will provide “full research and development funding for three years,” according to a release. Ignite will work to advance oncolytic virus vaccines against cancer, and, if the early work proves promising, Pfizer has an option to buy the company. Other terms weren’t announced.

Ignite hopes its vaccines will be “highly effective" in combination with checkpoint inhibitors, executive chairman David Kirn said in a statement, helping to “ultimately cure patients with metastatic cancers.” Pfizer is developing a PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor, avelumab, in partnership with Merck KGaA.

After high-profile misses in the cancer vaccines field by GlaxoSmithKline and Merck KGaA, many companies have looked to partner the vaccines with checkpoint inhibitors—such as Bristol-Myers Squibb's Opdivo—to seek a complementary response. Besides Bristol-Myers, Big Pharmas Merck & Co. and AstraZeneca have signed on with smaller biotechs to test the approach.

Other recent plays in cancer vaccines include Neon Therapeutics, Caperna, Gritstone and a collaboration between the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy and the Cancer Research Institute. Amgen was the first to win a green light for an oncolytic viral therapy in Imlygic, approved last October by the FDA in inoperable melanoma.

All told, the market for cancer vaccines is expected to triple by 2022, according to a recent analysis by GBI Research, after years of disappointments that put a damper on expectations.

For Pfizer, the play in oncolytics comes as its key vaccine offering, Prevnar 13, struggles to post the kind of growth numbers that boosted the company’s vax unit last year. After doing well to capture the market initially, analysts now expect the vaccine’s sales to slowly decline through 2022.

In a push to diversify, the company last summer touted a “comprehensive” pipeline in vaccines, outlining a maternal vaccine program, cancer vaccines and other projects. It also has C. diff and S. aureus candidates in Phase II.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to complete the name of "Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy."