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Nektar (NKTR) Teams Up With Merck for Head & Neck Cancer Study

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Shares of Nektar Therapeutics (NKTR - Free Report) grew 13% after it announced an agreement with pharma giant Merck (MRK - Free Report) for a phase II/III study of the former’s bempegaldesleukin (NKTR-214, BEMPEG) in combination with the latter’s blockbuster immuno-oncology drug, Keytruda, for the first-line treatment of patients with metastatic or unresectable recurrent squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (SCCHN), whose tumors express PD-L1.

Bempegaldesleukin is Nektar's experimental IL-2 pathway agent. Per the terms, Nektar will conduct the above-mentioned study, which is expected to enroll 500 patients with metastatic or recurrent SCCHN with PD-L1 expressing tumors.

These patients will be randomized to receive either the combination of bempegaldesleukin and Keytruda or only Keytruda. The phase II portion of the study will include an interim analysis of the overall response rate (ORR) after the first 200 patients enrolled have a minimum follow-up of 4 months.

The study will be continued only if the ORR passes a prespecified futility boundary. Thereafter, the remaining 300 patients will be enrolled in the phase III portion of the study. The primary endpoints of the trial are ORR and overall survival (OS), while progression free survival (PFS) is a secondary endpoint.

A phase II study, PROPEL, is already evaluating bempegaldesleukin with Keytruda in patients with metastatic non-small cell lung cancer and the initial data are expected shortly.

We note that Nektar also has a collaboration agreement with Bristol-Myers (BMY - Free Report) for various studies evaluating bempegaldesleukin in combination with the latter’s immuno-oncology drug, Opdivo.

These collaborations provide the company with a regular cash infusion.

Nektar’s shares have gained 15.4% in the past year compared with the industry’s growth of 1.4%.

The company has also forged a license agreement with Eli Lily (LLY - Free Report) to co-develop NKTR-358. A phase II study, conducted by Lilly, is evaluating the candidate in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus.

Nektar currently has a Zacks Rank #3 (Hold). You can see the complete list of today’s Zacks #1 Rank (Strong Buy) stocks here.

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