On July 7, shares of Cambridge, MA-based Idera Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: IDRA) plummeted 16% to $1.73 after it announced that Germany’s Merck KGaA had decided to halt development of a cancer drug the two companies had been working on together. When Idera’s drug, called IMO-2055, was given in combination with two commonly used chemo drugs and cetuximab (Erbitux) to treat a type of head and neck cancer, some patients developed side effects such as a dangerous drop in white blood cells. It was enough to prompt Merck KGaA to halt all clinical development of IMO-2055.
A few days later, in a phone interview with Xconomy, Idera CEO Sudhir Agrawal was sober, but undeterred. “It’s disappointing, but also expected with chemo,” he says. “We still believe the future of [cancer treatment] is with targeted agents.”
Idera was founded in 1989 around the idea of targeting toll-like receptors. The body’s cells harbor many types of these receptors, which help rally the immune system to fight disease. Some of Idera’s experimental molecules are “agonists” that turn on toll-like receptors, while others are “antagonists,” which turn them off.
IMO-2055 is a member of the family called toll-like receptor 9 (TLR9) agonists. Idera and Merck KGaA’s scientists initially believed TLR9 agonists could fight many types of cancer, when combined with targeted treatments that were already on the market. The two companies inked a partnership in 2007 that included a $40 million up-front payment to Idera, plus potential milestone payments of up to $381 million.
Merck KGaA’s decision to stop developing IMO-2055 is just the latest in a line of failures over the past few years that have cast doubt on … Next Page »