Germany's Merck KGaA said two of its experimental oncology drugs showed early signs of promise in certain lung cancer patients, potentially helping efforts to find a drug-industry partner to share further development costs for one of them.

Merck, which has a promising drug pipeline for the first time in several years, is looking for partners for experimental treatments as an expected decline in operating profit this year forces it to find new ways to fund pharmaceutical development.

The family-controlled company released some initial data from early- and mid-stage trials in advance of the annual conference of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), to be held in Chicago in early June.

Immunotherapy mechanisms

A bifunctional fusion protein known as M7824, which combines two immunotherapy mechanisms, led to tumor shrinkage in 40.7% of patients in a small study group suffering from non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

Those patients, being tested in the first of what are typically three trial stages, had tumors with at least some level of PD-L1, a protein that helps cancer evade an immune system response.

In lung cancer patients where PD-L1 was at a level of at least 80%, the rate of tumor shrinkage was 71.4%.In another study, cancer drug tepotinib was associated with partial tumor shrinkage in 9 out of 15 trial participants, according to an interim analysis of an ongoing trial in the second of typically three stages of testing on humans.

Patients in that trial are suffering from NSCLC that is driven by a certain type of genetic mutation.Globally, lung cancer is the biggest killer of all cancer types but drugmakers have resorted to targeting small subcategories defined by genetic vulnerabilities that new drugs can attack.