Updated from 1:13 a.m. EDT

Merck

(MRK) - Get Report

and

AstraZeneca

(AZN) - Get Report

announced Monday a collaboration to research a combination anticancer regimen made up of two investigational compounds.

In a statement Monday, the companies said preclinical evidence indicates that combined administration of these compounds could "enhance their anticancer properties."

Merck and AstraZeneca said it's the first time that two large pharmaceutical companies have established a collaboration to evaluate the potential for combining candidate molecules at such an early stage of development. Such combinations, the companies said, generally only would be studied when one or both of the drugs has entered late-stage development or received marketing approval.

Under the terms of the agreement, AstraZeneca and Merck will work together to evaluate the co-administration of the compounds in a Phase I clinical trial for the treatment of solid cancer tumors. The companies will share development costs. Following the Phase I trial, the companies will consider opportunities for further clinical development.

The statement from the companies confirms news reported earlier Monday in the

Wall Street Journal

.

The collaboration is based on laboratory evidence that the two compounds given combined could have a more potent effect against tumors than each may have as separate treatments. The treatment could prove effective against several types of cancer, scientists at the companies say.

The

Journal

reports that MK-2206 from Merck and AZD6244 from AstraZeneca are candidates for the so-called targeted treatments that are transforming cancer care by disrupting signaling pathways that tumor cells rely on to grow and survive. The hope is that combining the treatments will improve chances of curing patients of cancer or keeping their diseases in check for longer.

Merck and AstraZeneca plan to announce the collaboration during the annual scientific meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Orlando.

AZD6244, which blocks a pathway known as MEK, has been tested in early- to mid-stage trials in patients with skin, colorectal and lung cancers. Merck's drug, which inhibits a pathway called Akt, has been shown to have activity against tumors in a handful of patients in an early-stage test, the

Journal

report notes.