Merck’s Keytruda Extends Lung Cancer Survival in Combination Trial

Analysts predict peak sales of about $8.2 billion by 2020

Early results from a key study have shown that a cocktail of Merck’s blockbuster drug pembrolizumab (Keytruda) and two chemotherapy agents helped lung cancer patients live longer and stopped the disease from advancing, according to a recent Reuters report.

The results cement Merck’s position as a front-runner in the race to develop drugs that can be used as the initial or first-line treatment for patients with a common type of lung cancer.

Swiss drug-maker Roche, Merck’s U.S. rival Bristol-Myers Squibb, and AstraZeneca are all developing combination lung cancer treatments of their own.

Merck has already secured U.S. regulatory approval for its combination based on positive results from an earlier trial. But it withdrew a European marketing application for the combination last year after regulators asked for more data, disappointing some Merck investors.

The latest results increase the chances of a European regulatory approval, an analyst at Evercore ISI told Reuters.

“While this announcement puts Merck back on track, the final competitive landscape in first-line lung cancer is still far from resolved,” said Alistair Campbell, an analyst at Berenberg.

Lung cancer is a lucrative oncology market and a first-line approval makes a drug available to the most patients.

Pembrolizumab brought Merck more than $1 billion in sales in the third quarter and analysts expect the drug to generate peak sales of about $8.2 billion by 2020. But Merck will have to rely heavily on pembrolizumab being used as a first-line lung cancer treatment to achieve that milestone, analysts said.

Merck’s shares rose 6.2% to $62.29 after data from the late-stage study were released. Roche’s shares fell 3.4%, while shares of Bristol-Myers and AstraZeneca dipped between 1% and 3%.

Roche said last month its immunotherapy atezolizumab (Tecentriq), when combined with other drugs, doubled the percentage of lung cancer patients who survived a year without their disease advancing.

Merck’s cocktail comprised pembrolizumab, Eli Lilly’s pemetrexed (Alimta), and a standard chemotherapy and was tested on patients with a type of non–small-cell lung cancer.

Source: Reuters; January 16, 2018.