Cancer immunotherapies turn a corner in race to megablockbuster market

Almost lost in the din surrounding Merck's ($MRK) big about-face on the restructuring front yesterday, the pharma giant quietly posted some more promising early-stage data on what has become its brightest pipeline prospect: the cancer immunotherapy MK-3475.

About a quarter of the patients with advanced lung cancer responded to the treatment, right in line with results seen on its rival PD-1 drug--nivolumab from Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY)--as well as Roche's ($RHHBY) complementary treatment for PD-L1, MPDL3280A. Among the treatment-resistant patients 24% experienced an immune response and about one in 5 saw their tumors shrink.

Right now, it's hard to overestimate the market potential for these breakthrough cancer therapies. Leerink Swann issued a review from Howard Liang and Seamus Fernandez which concludes that "50% of all cancer treatment could involve immunotherapy within the next decade."

For Leerink, Bristol-Myers looks to be in the lead with a combo approach on these new drugs, which essentially take the brakes off the immune system and foster an attack on cancer cells.

Tim Anderson at Bernstein recently compiled a fresh look at the top drugs in the industry pipeline and concluded that the three assets from Merck, Bristol-Myers and Roche were potentially the most valuable new products now in development, projecting peak sales of $4 billion for nivolumab, about $3.5 billion for Roche's program and $3 billion for Merck's 3475 (formerly called lambrolizumab).

That helps explain why Merck is adopting a special R&D focus for 3475 as it races ahead with a potential game-changer for a company that desperately needs to hear some good news from R&D.

- here's the release from Merck

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