Merck CEO Frazier credits Keytruda success to slim-down strategy

Merck CEO Ken Frazier

SAN FRANCISCO--With Keytruda, Merck ($MRK) has a first-in-class, highly promising cancer treatment that it's already preparing to submit to the FDA for a lucrative label expansion. But the drug wouldn't be where it is today had the pharma giant not jumped on pharma's slim-down bandwagon, CEO Ken Frazier told a group at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference.

The company's plans to file Keytruda for approval in non-small cell lung cancer midway through this year--intentions it announced Monday morning--are "proof that sharpening our focus is leading to important and timely results in our laboratories," he said.

For Merck, that sharpened focus on oncology, one of four key areas it's targeting for growth, came at the expense of other operations--namely consumer health, which it hived off to Bayer last spring for $14.2 billion. Joining peers like Pfizer ($PFE), Abbott ($ABT) and Novartis ($NVS) in the cast-off craze, it pledged that shedding its non-core assets would help it double down on the things it does best.

And the way Frazier sees it, that's what happened in 2014. "Keytruda is an example of unprecedented execution and focus across the research, manufacturing and commercial divisions of Merck," he said.

That commercial execution has so far helped Keytruda reach the "vast majority" of patients who don't respond to Bristol-Myers Squibb's ($BMY) fellow melanoma immunotherapy Yervoy, Frazier said, and Merck is reaching 90% of Yervoy prescribers across hospitals and community-based oncologists alike.

On the access side, more than 90% of Keytruda claims have been paid in less than 60 days, and the company came through on its promise to convert all patients on its expanded access program over to commercial Keytruda within 60 days of approval.

It's a good thing for Merck that it did, too, with competition now hot on the pharma giant's tail. Challenger Opdivo from Bristol-Myers Squibb won its own approval in December to set up a market battle, and just before the drugmaker announced its NSCLC plans, Bristol unveiled positive trial data of its own for the disease.

But Merck isn't worried. There's room on the market for both treatments, company EVP and president of global human health Adam Schechter told a group following Frazier's presentation, especially considering the fact that the company is evaluating Keytruda in more than 20 cancers.

"The underlying message is that this is a very important medical advance," he said of the new BMS data. "There's a place for multiple competitors to be successful in the future."

- read the release from Merck

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