Custom-tailored therapy
August 2012
by Jeffrey Bouley  |  Email the author


CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Merrimack Pharmaceuticals Inc. and the Schaumburg, Ill.-based Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) recently announced a partnership to advance their long-term vision of individualized treatment wherein diagnosis and therapy is guided by an in-depth understanding of the underlying mechanism of a patient's disease.  
The collaboration encompasses research on diagnostics based on a network signaling approach to analyzing patients' tumors as well as clinical trial research. For the diagnostic research aspect of this collaboration, CTCA will contribute archived tumor biopsies from its extensive tumor databank as well as prospectively collected tumor samples. These samples will be analyzed using Merrimack's Network Biology approach for identifying the network signaling that drives cancer growth with the goal of understanding each patient's cancer at the molecular level.  
"One of the questions Merrimack likes to ask is, 'What is this tumor addicted to for its growth?' and the answer to that is powerful, because then you can sample a tumor and use the technology to answer that in real-time with an efficiency that lets you immediately incorporate that into a patient workup and treatment plan," says Dr. Donald T. Braun, vice president of clinical research at CTCA. "The fact that they have a system to address growth dependency in tumors is extremely important to us and the fact they used that information to guide the development of new therapies to block those growth pathways is important to us."  
One of the key strengths that CTCA offers Merrimack, in turn, is that many of CTCA's patients are battling advanced cancer and have received many—if not all—of the standard lines of therapy, and CTCA has regional destination hospitals in Chicago, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Tulsa, with a fifth hospital opening in Atlanta in 2012, providing a wide variety of patient samples and data from a large patient population. This makes CTCA's tumor archive particularly valuable, the partners say, because it offers an opportunity for Merrimack to explore how the molecular characteristics of a tumor change as a result of therapy. This joint effort, they say, could eventually lead to the identification of novel companion diagnostics to guide treatment decisions.  
"This partnership with Merrimack supports our goal to give every patient an individually focused treatment plan, using innovative technologies and tools to help fight their cancer and improve their quality of life," said Dr. Maurie Markman, senior vice president of clinical affairs and national director of medical oncology at CTCA, in an official statement about the deal. "We believe that the innovations that come from this partnership could help provide the right treatment for every patient's unique biology."  
"Access to CTCA's tumor samples greatly enhances the speed and scope of the research we are doing to understand the complexity of cancer cells and to characterize what their growth is dependent upon," added Robert Mulroy, CEO of Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, in the news release about the collaboration. "CTCA is a great example of a forward-looking institution trying to change the face of cancer care. This collaboration represents the future of individualized treatment where a hospital and a biopharmaceutical company work together on research, which we hope will ultimately result in much better treatment for cancer patients. "  
One of Merrimack's key goals is to ensure that with every therapeutic it develops, it also co-develops a companion diagnostic, Gavin MacBeath, a founder of Merrimack Pharmaceuticals and its vice president of translational research, tells ddn. "Our long-term goal is to find ways to predict which patients will respond to our drugs based on biomarker profiles or other information, so that's how our goals aligned so well with CTCA since they want to provide the best possible targeted therapies as well."
"CTCA's key strength is they have a lot of experience with treating patients and understanding the lifecycle of cancer and specifically various cancer indications and how patients respond to different drugs and at different stages in the lifecycle of the disease," MacBeath adds. "Also, with their treatment aspect, they have a very well-developed network of patients and organizations to provide data that advances translational research. From Merrimack's perspective, we bring a deep understanding of the biology behind cancer and quantitative models that predict how cells will respond depending on the status of the cell and the agent it is exposed to. We have five compounds in our pipeline, and soon to be six, that are in clinical trials along with the biological knowledge that led to the discovery of those drugs."  
The parties note that in addition to diagnostic goals, the collaboration also encompasses clinical research.
"We think that working with CTCA will be good for both parties, and especially in providing the material we need to help us develop companion diagnostics," MacBeath says.  
In terms of the timing of the deal, he notes that Merrimack is at the stage where, in the last two years particularly, the clinical program has expanded quite dramatically with Phase II and Phase III trials, "and we're looking for partnerships to help move the drugs along in development and develop companion diagnostics for them. Another strength of CTCA that attracted us to them was that they have an existing repository of patient biopsies and archived tumor samples as well as data on clinical responses of patients. That works for us not only in our current work but as something to learn from as we plan future clinical trials."  
Code: E081214

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