Sales of the immunotherapy medicine are up 80% on last year, says data provider IMS

Sales of a Merck medicine that turns the body into a weapon against cancer have jumped sharply after the US pharmaceuticals group stole market share from a rival drugmaker.

Keytruda is one of a new class of medicines known as immunotherapies that have dramatically changed the odds for some cancer patients.

The drugs work by releasing brakes on the immune system, allowing the body to attack tumour cells and extending some patients’ lives by months or years longer than doctors would have otherwise expected.

In the first two months of the year, sales of Keytruda in the US jumped to roughly $260m, an 80 per cent increase compared with the same period last year, according to IMS, a data provider that tracks medicine sales.

Doctors have started writing more prescriptions for the drug after regulators in the US and Europe said it could be given to some lung cancer patients who have not yet tried chemotherapy.

Umer Raffat, an analyst at Evercore ISI, the investment bank, said the figures suggested Merck was on track to exceed Wall Street expectations for sales of Keytruda in the first quarter.

Whereas analysts are typically expecting US sales of Keytruda to be roughly $360m in the first quarter, the latest figures imply revenues could be about $100m higher, he said.

Keytruda has been rapidly taking market share from Bristol-Myers Squibb, which makes a rival immunotherapy known as Opdivo, giving the New Jersey-based drugmaker fresh momentum in the race to win new patients.

Until last year, Bristol-Myers had been the undisputed leader in immunotherapy after Opdivo was approved for all patients with “second line” lung cancer — those who have tried chemotherapy but are no longer responding to the treatment.

Merck’s sales were crimped by a more limited approval for Keytruda, which stipulated that the medicine should only be used in a subset of patients who were likely to respond to the drug.

However, the biggest opportunity for both companies was the chance to treat the larger pool of “first line” lung cancer patients who have not yet used chemotherapy, with the American Cancer Society estimating about 222,500 people will be diagnosed with the disease this year.

But Bristol-Myers’ ambitions in the first line market were dashed in the summer of 2016 after Opdivo flunked a head-to-head clinical trial comparing the medicine to chemotherapy.

Hopes of a quick comeback were subsequently scotched earlier this year after Bristol-Myers said it did not think it would win early approval for a combination therapy that twinned Opdivo with one of its older medicines.

Conversely, Merck has been given a green light to use Keytruda in first-line lung cancer patients, although its use is limited to those patients whose tumours test positive for a “biomarker” or biological clue that means they are more likely to respond.

In contrast to the rapid take-up of Keytruda, sales of Opdivo in the US grew by 0.7 per cent in the first two months of this year, according to IMS, to roughly $448m.

A host of rival drugmakers have also recently secured approval in the US and Europe for their immunotherapies, including Roche, Pfizer and Merck of Germany. AstraZeneca is also developing its own version, Durvalumab.


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