Immutep (ASX:IMM) shares closed 10.5 per cent higher on Tuesday after the Sydney biotech announced it would collaborate with drug giant Merck & Co on another clinical trial.

The two companies will hold a Phase IIb trial evaluating how their two drugs work together to treat first-line head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) in approximately 160 patients.

The drugs being tested are Merck & Co/MSD’s immunotherapy IV injection Keytruda in conjunction with Immutep’s lead drug candidate eftilagimod alpha (“efti”).

A so-called miracle drug, Keytruda is Merck’s most valuable asset, with $US14.4 billion ($18.6 billion) in worldwide sales last year, and the hunt is on to make the anti-cancer fighter even more effective.

This study will build on a smaller one, currently underway, that’s also testing the drug combination in lung and head and check cancer patients.

“The promising clinical results generated to date from the TACTI-002 trial have prompted the initiation of the TACTI-003 trial,” Immutep said.

HSNCC is the sixth most common cancer worldwide, with 890,000 new cases and 450,000 deaths in 2018. It’s an aggressive and difficult to treat cancer, associated with high levels of psychological distress, Immutep said.

Immutep shares closed Tuesday at 37c, their highest level since late February.