In a closely watched preview to an upcoming cancer conference, several big drugmakers late yesterday released abstracts showing promise for a new batch of drugs that harness the immune system to fight melanoma and other cancers. And the big winner, so far at least, is Bristol-Myers Squibb.
A combination of its existing Yervoy melanoma treatment and an experimental medication called nivolumab, which targets the immune system differently, shrank tumors in about 41 percent of 52 patients with advanced melanoma. Tumors disappeared entirely in 10 percent of patients.
The combination treatment generated faster patient responses and shrunk tumors more thoroughly than either drug alone, according to Jedd Wolchok, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the lead study author, in a briefing organized by the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
The new Bristol-Myers treatment, which is known as a PD-1, or programmed death therapy, is not the only such drug that is generating considerable interest. Both Merck and Roche are also testing such medications and reported encouraging results.
“We think the programmed death therapies are highly likely to steal the show” at the annual ASCO meeting to be held early next month in Chicago, wrote Sanford Bernstein analyst Tim Anderson in an investor note today. And for the moment, he believes Bristol-Myers is in the lead.
There was considerable anticipation, in fact, over the Bristol-Myers combination and the stock rose 5 percent yesterday, even though the abstract was not released for two hours after trading officially halted. ASCO says there was no indication that an embargo was broken or news released prematurely.
The stock gave up some gains today, prompting speculation that some investors may have been looking for better results from the combination treatment. But ISI Group analyst Mark Schoenebaum wrote in an investor note “this is a ‘near’ complete response and is quite impressive, in our opinion.”
And he released a survey of 104 large investors showing 42 percent believed the results met expectations, while another 29 percent believed the outcome was a bit better than expected. Only 9 percent expected the results to be much better.
But Roche is not far behind. The drugmaker released results of an early stage study showing its own drug, which works slightly differently, showed significant shrinkage in 29 of 140 patients who had not only melanoma, but also lung and kidney cancer (you can search the abstracts here).
“We are on the cusp of immunotherapy breaking into several different tumors,” wrote Leerink Swann analyst Seamus Fernandez in an investor note. But “Bristol-Myers is extremely well-positioned for long-term leadership in a transformational class of drugs.”
And big sales are projected. Bernstein, for instance, looks for Bristol-Myers (BMY) to notch about $3.2 billion in annual revenue by 2020, while both the Merck (MRK) and Roche drugs should generate roughly $1.5 billion by then.
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