As this year's ESMO gets under way, Pharm Exec spoke to James Campbell-global franchise business head at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany-to discuss his vision for the company as a global leader in oncology.
At this year’s European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) conference in Munich, Germany, Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany presented 39 abstracts in eight therapeutic agents across 14 tumor types, a “company record”. Ahead of the presentation at the Presidential Symposium, which took place on Sunday, October 21, Pharm Exec spoke to the new head of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany's global oncology business franchise, James Campbell, to discuss his first few months in the role and his vision for the company as a global leader in oncology.
James Campbell: It was an easy decision and it was based on several things. One was the quality of the pipeline and the excitement around the science of our pipeline in oncology. My first day with the company was the first day of ASCO this year, where I had a chance to see the data for our emerging pipeline. I was really impressed with the depth of the science and the diversity of pipeline assets that we have in oncology, ranging from immuno-oncology through to targeted therapies. I was also very intrigued by our partnerships. Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany struck me as a company that not only has strong internal capabilities, but also a strong external innovation bent, and the mindset to make 2 plus 2 equal 5.
I dare say the role has become even more challenging and complicated. The major increase in competitive intensity that we’ve seen in the immuno-oncology space in the last 5–10 years is of course a wonderful thing for science and for cancer patients, but it also means that we in the industry have to up our game, and those of us in strategic marketing have to up our game even further. We have to think even harder about how we remain competitive and stay ahead of the pack; how we can differentiate our therapies positively; how we can make sure that we maximize patient benefit by addressing the right drug to the right patient population; and enhancing our speed of innovation.
We have a tremendous set of data to present at ESMO. Our total number of abstracts is 39 across eight therapeutic agents and 14 different tumor types. These sorts of numbers really reinforce our position at the forefront of clinical development in oncology.
Of particular note, I would say, are the data we’re going to be presenting in the Presidential Symposium on Sunday evening (October 21). These are data from our Phase III JAVELIN Renal 101 study, evaluating Bavencio (avelumab, the Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany / Pfizer Alliance anti-PD-L1 antibody) in combination with Pfizer’s drug Inlyta (axitinib), compared with sunitinib as initial therapy for patients with advanced renal cell carcinoma. We’ve previously announced that this was a positive study and we’re looking forward to presenting the full data on Sunday.
Beyond that, I’m gratified by many of the other data sets we have. Around our legacy brand Erbitux, for example, we’re still generating data, and I’m pleased to see that there are still a number of abstracts coming through, helping to inform the science of the drug, particularly in our patients with colorectal cancer and head and neck cancer.
With regard to our late-development pipeline, I’m particularly excited about the data we’re bringing forward for M7824, which is our bifunctional immunotherapy designed to combine a transforming growth factor β (TGF-β) trap by 'fusing' it with the anti-programmed death ligand-1 (PD-L1) mechanism. That’s one to keep an eye for the future. We also have some very interesting data sets coming forward for tepotinib, our investigational, oral MET inhibitor designed to selectively inhibit the oncogenic MET receptor signaling caused by MET (gene) alterations or MET protein overexpression.
I think the key thing is continuing to deliver on the promise of our pipeline and making sure that we have the most effective transmission between the great science that’s going on in our R&D organization and actually getting cancer medicines to patients in need. That involves communicating the science in forums like ESMO and making sure we get our medicines registered and in the hands of providers and their patients. At the same time, I have to ensure that we continue to drive the performance of our in-line business, our marketed oncology brands, Erbitux and Bavencio.
Another key issue is getting the most out of our partnerships. I’ve been getting to know our partners at Pfizer and have been very encouraged by their contributions and commitment.
There is also the matter of bringing talent into the picture in a very prominent way. My ambition is that we will be a magnet for the best talent in the industry, who will complement the excellent people we already have on board.
I think any leading company in our industry has to lean in the direction of being even more externally focused, even more connected to the external innovation eco-system, and being even more inclined to think boldly about new approaches to how we can best develop our science and our pipeline. For all the talent we have in-house, there are always going to be brilliant ideas in the external world that we need to tap into and access. We can achieve the very best results by connecting our ideas and in-house talent with the external world to drive our business towards the future. We’re always proud of pushing through an in-house project and there will of course continue to be more of those projects in the future. But as our ambition grows and we seek to consolidate our leadership in the industry, I see the trend being toward even more external innovation and partnerships.