Brainstorm Health: Merck’s Lung Cancer Triumph, COPD and Women, Trump on Drug Prices

April 16, 2018, 6:23 PM UTC

Hello and happy Monday, readers! This is Sy.

New study results released Monday continue to cement drug giant Merck’s status as the force to be reckoned with in the lung cancer treatment space. Merck’s flagship cancer immunotherapy Keytruda (or pembrolizumab), combined with chemotherapy, helped lung cancer patients live significantly longer lives than those treated with chemotherapy alone.

It’s the latest in a string of powerful, positive clinical trial results for Keytruda, which is already approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat multiple cancer types including melanoma and lung cancer. In fact, it’s approved as a go-to a treatment in combination with chemotherapy for advanced cancer patients who haven’t taken any other medicines. And just last week, a different Keytruda study showed that the drug, even by itself, was more effective than chemotherapy in lung cancer, opening up the possibility that some patients could forgo chemo and its nasty side effects altogether if approved by regulators.

The new results demonstrate just how effective Keytruda can be for a large swath of lung cancer patients. The company reported that the drug-plus-chemotherapy combo had a “hazard ratio” of 0.49. In plain terms, what that means is that Keytruda combined with chemo cut the risk of lung cancer patients dying in half (we won’t know specifically how much longer it helped them live until later).

Merck stock spiked about 2.5% in Monday trading on the strength of the results. Unfortunately for rival Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS), which has its own competing cancer immunotherapy called Opdivo, investors didn’t seem too keen on its own positive trial results announced Monday. BMS shares dropped nearly 10% Monday despite another study showing that Opdivo, combined with another Bristol-Myers immunotherapy called Yervoy, slowed lung cancer’s progression in patients. The study’s design has been controversial, though and BMS has had an especially tough time in the lung cancer field against Merck (even while Opdivo has raked in billions in sales from plenty of other cancer indications).

But the story of competition in the lung cancer space ultimately shines a light on the disease’s perniciousness, and how important any drug that can help patients live longer is to doctors and patients. There are about 156,000 Americans who die every year from lung cancer, making it the deadliest cancer in the country.

Read on for the day’s news.


Amazon may not be selling drugs to hospitals after all. CNBC reports that Amazon's enterprise arm is reversing course on a plan to sell and distribute prescription drugs. The rumors of this (now possibly scrapped) market entry likely helped set off a wave of cross-sector consolidation in the medical industry; but some skeptics noted from the get-go that the direct biopharma distributor business is pretty complicated and would invite a whole lot of regulatory scrutiny and convincing major, disparate players to change the very way they do business. (CNBC)


Shire is selling off its cancer drugs. Rare drug maker Shire is divesting its oncology unit over to French drug maker Servier for $2.4 billion—a possible fly in the ointment for a possible $50-plus billion acquisition bid by Takeda Pharmaceuticals, a Japanese biopharma giant that's on the hunt to widen its global footprint. But some analysts noted that the cancer business didn't exactly make up a huge share of Shire sales. (Reuters)


President Trump to deliver drug price speech next week. President Donald Trump is planning a "major" speech on drug prices on April 26, Politico reports. It's an issue the president has put in his crosshairs on multiple occasions; but while drug makers' shares used to plummet every time Trump mentioned high drug prices, the industry has begun largely shaking off his comments in recent times as there's been little done in the way of actual large-scale policy changes (and there may not be a huge appetite for it in Congress). The president may announce more concrete possible measures in the speech next week.  (Politico)

The lung-eating disease increasingly affecting women (and Barbara Bush). Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may not exactly be a household term. But it is the number three killer of Americans and one of the deadliest diseases worldwide, eating away at lung function and making every day tasks like simply talking or walking difficult. Studies suggest that this difficult condition is increasingly affecting women—in fact, women now make up 58% of current cases and 53% of fatal cases. Former First Lady Barbara Bush, age 92, is one of those women grappling with the disease, according to a statement released Monday. (Kaiser Health News)


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