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Merck's lung cancer drugs show promise in early-stage trials
GERMANY'S Merck said two of its experimental oncology drugs showed early signs of promise in certain lung cancer patients, potentially helping efforts to find drug-industry partners to share further development costs.
Merck, which has a promising drug pipeline for the first time in several years, is looking for partners for experimental treatments as an expected decline in operating profit this year forces it to find new ways to fund pharmaceutical development.
The family-controlled company late on Wednesday released some initial data from early- and mid-stage trials, giving a 3.5 per cent boost to the share price after the open on Thursday.
A bi-functional fusion protein known as M7824, which combines two immunotherapy mechanisms, led to tumour shrinkage in 40.7 percent of patients in a small study group; all had non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).
Those patients, being tested in the first of what are typically three trial stages, had tumours with at least some level of PD-L1, a protein that helps the cancer evade an immune system response. In lung cancer patients where PD-L1 was at a level of at least 80 per cent, the rate of tumour shrinkage was 71.4 per cent.
Bernstein analyst Wimal Kapadia said: "Merck will not have a problem finding a partner with this data set." He added that competing immunotherapies have shown a percentage of patients that respond to treatment of only 15 to 20 per cent.
The stock was the second-biggest gainer on the STOXX Europe 600 Health Care index.
In another study, cancer drug tepotinib was associated with partial tumour shrinkage in nine out of 15 trial participants, according to an interim analysis of an ongoing trial in the second of typically three stages of testing on humans.
Patients in that trial are suffering from NSCLC driven by a certain type of genetic mutation.
Mr Kapadia said: "It is early data, but investors will struggle to ignore the potential, particularly given the lack of expectations on both assets."
Globally, lung cancer is the biggest killer among all cancer types, but drugmakers have resorted to targeting small subcategories defined by genetic vulnerabilities that new drugs can attack. REUTERS