Merck's Keytruda shines in pre-ASCO abstract release, with Pfizer catching the limelight, too


The ASCO abstracts are out, and they’re a mixed bag for the Big Pharma companies tied up in the PD-1/PD-L1 race. 

The American Society of Clinical Oncology's annual meeting is arguably pharma's most closely watched conference, and industry watchers are always on the lookout for winners--and losers. The way Leerink Partners analysts see it, Merck’s Keytruda is sitting pretty ahead of the conference, to be held in Chicago in early June.

Wednesday, the New Jersey pharma giant released long-term overall survival data for its immunotherapy in melanoma, showing that more than 55% of patients were alive two years after starting treatment, compared with 43% of patients taking Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Yervoy. Release

But Merck is also testing the med in different types of cancer and in different combinations; results from the Keynote-021 study, which tested a Keytruda chemo combo in 74 lung cancer patients, showed progression-free survival of 10 months overall, and between 14 and 15 months in PD-L1-positive patients, Leerink’s Seamus Fernandez wrote to clients. And with no new corresponding data on Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo coming before the conference weekend, Merck’s cocktail is taking “center stage pre-ASCO.”

Pfizer also teamed its own cancer contender with the Merck checkpoint inhibitor to the tune of positive results. Its up-and-comer, utomilumab, showed early promise against a variety of cancer types in a tiny clinical trial, Reuters notes.

Meanwhile, the New York drugmaker is hard at work with partner Merck KGaA on prospect avelumab, and it intends to highlight data on that compound at ASCO, too. Release

But the PD-L1 therapy lags behind others in the checkpoint inhibitor crowd--including FDA breakthrough drug durvalumab from AstraZeneca and Roche’s Tecentriq, which won its first U.S. approval on Thursday in bladder cancer. In that indication, though, AZ’s rival and BMS’ Opdivo showed higher response rates, Fernandez noted. “Baseline characteristics to be presented at ASCO should be closely watched,” he wrote.

Special Report: The biggest winners--and losers--in the 2015 race for new drug approvals

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