Roche's blockbuster-hopeful immunotherapy shows promise in skin cancer

Roche ($RHHBY), angling for third place among companies in the growing field of immuno-oncology, is touting promising early data for its so-called checkpoint inhibitor in skin cancer, building its case for the wide use of its in-development therapy.

In a 17-patient Phase Ib study, combining Roche's atezolizumab with the on-the-market Zelboraf shrank tumors for 76% of volunteers, and three patients had their melanoma disappear completely, the company said. Side effects in the study were "manageable and generally reversible," Roche said, with no dose-limiting toxicities or treatment-related deaths.

Atezolizumab works by blocking a protein checkpoint called PD-L1, thereby unblinding the immune system to malignant presences and leading a T cell attack on cancer. Roche, like its rivals in the field, is working through a fleet of clinical trials that mix and match checkpoint inhibitors with other oncology agents, testing their products on a wide array of cancers in hopes of eventually winning broad FDA approvals.

Merck ($MRK) and Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) hit the market first with checkpoint blockers approved to treat lung and skin cancers. Roche is on their heels with atezolizumab, expected to win approval for bladder and lung cancers next year, while AstraZeneca ($AZN) is pressing through Phase III with a PD-L1 blocker of its own. In 5th place is the pairing of Merck KGaA and Pfizer ($PFE), a duo hoping to cut the checkpoint queue by focusing on rarer cancers.

The whole class of medications is slated to bring in more than $30 billion at its peak, analysts say, a projection that assumes Roche and its rivals will be able to continually demonstrate the value of checkpoint inhibition in more and more cancers, changing the standard of care.

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