Good thing Bristol-Myers' Opdivo and Eliquis surged in Q1. Its other drugs didn't

Yervoy immuno-therapy packaging
Bristol-Myers Squibb's original immuno-oncology drug Yervoy posted first-quarter sales 25% lower than last year's. (Bristol-Myers)

Bristol-Myers Squibb may be facing plenty of questions about how its immuno-oncology treatment Opdivo will compete with Merck & Co.’s Keytruda in lung cancer‚ but meanwhile, the drug’s bringing home the bacon.

More than $1.5 billion, in fact, for the first quarter, an increase of 34% year over year and $101 million more than analysts had expected. If Opdivo can keep to that pace, it’ll rack up $6 billion in 2018 sales, several hundred million ahead of some analyst forecasts.

Coupled with a strong showing for anticoagulant Eliquis—which beat the Street with $1.51 billion in quarterly sales, a 37% increase—the cancer star’s sales made Bristol-Myers’ first-quarter results look decent. Overall revenue grew by 5% to $5.2 billion, no thanks to the HIV and hepatitis C drugs in Bristol-Myers’ stable, which lost ground across the board, or Opdivo’s fellow cancer drugs, which fell short of consensus.

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Check out the line items in Bristol-Myers’ cancer franchise and you’ll see the sore point for BMS in immuno-oncology isn’t Opdivo so much as Yervoy. The older immuno-oncology drug has been losing ground, and in the first quarter, sales dropped by 25% to just $249 million—not even one-sixth of Opdivo’s haul. And Yervoy was supposed to pick up speed as a treatment partner with Opdivo.

RELATED: BMS' Opdivo-Yervoy combo posts big lung cancer win—but big enough to challenge Merck?

It still might in some forms of cancer, such as melanoma, colorectal and renal cancer—the combo was just approved in that disease—but in the key lung cancer field, that combo hasn’t yet cleared the performance bar Keytruda set with its chemo combo. In one of the most closely watched studies presented at the American Association for Cancer Research this month, Opdivo and Yervoy together hit their progression-free survival goals in previously untreated lung cancer patients, but only those with a high tumor mutational burden, a biomarker Bristol-Myers is pushing as an important addition to the usual diagnostic testing. 

RELATED: Analysts slash Opdivo estimates by billions after trial failure—and hike Keytruda's, too

Keytruda, on the other hand, delivered big benefits to first-line patients, even those who didn’t test positive for PD-L1, the protein it and Opdivo both target. As Bernstein analyst Tim Anderson, M.D., pointed out, Opdivo’s results in that Checkmate-227 study were “in stark contrast to MRK's '189 data, whose combination did better than chemotherapy in all segments, and the magnitude of the benefit in all of these segments was impressive.”

Overall survival data from the Opdivo-Yervoy ‘226 trial aren’t ready yet, though, and BMS execs have pointed out that preliminary numbers are promising there.

But for unalloyed growth, you’ll have to turn to Eliquis, the next-gen clot-buster that Bristol-Myers shares with Pfizer. Though it hit the market third, after Boehringer Ingelheim’s Pradaxa and Johnson & Johnson and Bayer’s Xarelto, it has been speeding along and recently wrested the market-leader title away from Xarelto. In the first quarter, Eliquis raked in almost as much as Opdivo at $1.51 billion.