Padding its lung cancer lead, Merck's Keytruda helped PD-L1 patients live 30 months longer

Merck's Keytruda boasts two front-line lung-cancer approvals.

Merck’s immuno-oncology medication Keytruda has built up an imposing lead in lung cancer, and the company is touting more positive survival data to keep that lead intact.

The New Jersey drugmaker unveiled updated study data Wednesday showing that, for previously untreated patients with a particular type of tumor, Keytruda extended their lives by a median 30 months, compared with 14.2 months for chemo patients. 

With those new stats in the mix, the study continues to show a 37% reduction in the risk of death for Merck’s star drug versus chemotherapy.

The updated data focused on patients whose tumors expressed PD-L1 levels of 50% or more. As a PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor, Keytruda tends to work best in patients with high levels of PD-L1.

RELATED: Merck's Keytruda halves lung-cancer progression, death risk in big first-line victory

The trial, dubbed Keynote-024, last year made Keytruda the drug to beat in the lucrative first-line lung cancer field. At 2016’s European Society for Medical Oncology annual meeting in Copenhagen, Merck unveiled results showing that, among high PD-L1 expressers, Keytruda could keep disease at bay for 10.3 months—a 4.3 month edge over chemo.

Of course, Merck also got some help from rival Bristol-Myers Squibb. At the same meeting, BMS revealed details of its Opdivo flop in previously untreated patients, showing the drug hadn’t posted an advantage no matter which way you sliced the data.

While Keytruda has shone as a monotherapy, Merck hasn’t stopped there. In May, it nabbed a first-line FDA approval for a Keytruda-chemo combo, giving the company two green lights in a group of patients where its competitors still have zero.

RELATED: Merck piles on the positive Keytruda-chemo combo results in lung cancer

It’s not for lack of trying, though. AstraZeneca, which was closest behind Merck in the first-line combo race, announced over the summer that its PD-L1/CTLA4 matchup had missed the mark in a phase 3 study. The CTLA4 combo approach is one Bristol is also testing, with Roche following in Merck’s chemo-combo footsteps.

On the chance that the CTLA4 combo does later prove viable, though, Merck has started up a trial of Keytruda and Bristol’s CTLA4 contender Yervoy in first-line patients, pitting the tandem against solo Keytruda.

The move drew praise from Bernstein analyst Tim Anderson, who applauded the company for going “big.”

Merck “has been roundly criticized in the past for being a ‘one trick pony’ when it comes to IO, and not having enough combinations," Anderson wrote in an investor note. "In fact, it is now close to leading the pack when measured as different phase 3 combination trials that are running in first-line lung cancer."