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Roche open to alliances in hunt for cancer drug combinations

By Ludwig Burger and Patricia Weiss

FRANKFURT, April 1 (Reuters) - Roche, the world's largest cancer drugmaker, is ready to collaborate with rivals to find new combination therapies for multi-pronged treatments, its chief executive said.

Severin Schwan said the company was investing very heavily in a new wave of cancer immunotherapy drugs, where finding combination therapies to attack tumours on different fronts would be "extremely important".

Roche is vying with rivals such as Bristol-Myers Squibb , Merck & Co and AstraZeneca to develop such immuno-oncology therapies that harness the power of the body's immune system in the fight against cancer.

"We are open for possible forms of collaboration with external parties," Schwan told reporters late on Wednesday.

He said alliances were important even though the company had the capacity to develop drug combinations in house.

"Partnering is absolutely fundamental," he said.

Using a cocktail of two or more drugs instead of one can increase the chances of eradicating all cancerous cells in a patient's body, cutting the risk that any stray cells start dividing again after initial treatment success.

Switzerland-based Roche struck a deal in January to acquire a majority stake in molecular and genomic analysis business Foundation Medicine, to help develop combination therapies and identify cancer patients more accurately.

Roche's use of other drugs in combination therapies includes cobimetinib, developed with U.S. biotech firm Exelixis Inc , which is to be used with another Roche drug called Zelboraf to treat a certain kind of skin cancer.

Schwan said the drag on Roche's business from the strength of the Swiss franc against the euro was being overestimated.

"For one thing, we incur more than 80 percent of our operating costs outside of Switzerland. That means there is natural hedging," he said. "The second factor, which is being completely overlooked, is the strong dollar."

The Swiss central bank in January removed a cap on the franc sending the Swiss currency soaring. While the franc is still up about 15 percent against the euro since then, the Swiss currency is only up about 5 percent against the dollar, having pared most gains.

"For a global company like Roche the dollar is much more important. We generate much more revenue in the dollar area, in the United States and in the emerging markets, which are more strongly linked to the dollar than the euro," said Schwan.

(Editing by David Clarke)