Merck’s Bet on Cancer Immunotherapy Is Paying Off in Spades and Helping Lung Cancer Patients Live Longer

April 16, 2018, 6:47 PM UTC

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.

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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.

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