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Merck & Co's cancer drug Keytruda gaining traction in US

Anti-PD-1 drug is used in around three quarters of eligible patients in US just weeks after FDA approval
Merck Keytruda

Around three quarters of patents in the US eligible for treatment with Merck & Co's recently-approved Keytruda cancer drug are already receiving the drug, says the firm.

Just a few weeks after the PD-1 inhibitor was granted accelerated approval by the FDA, Keytruda (pembrolizumab) is already being used to treat around 900 out of the total 1,200 US melanoma patients that meet the criteria on the drug's label, according to Merck.

The US regulator approved Keytruda in early September for the treatment of patients with unresectable or metastatic melanoma and disease progression following Bristol-Myers Squibb's Yervoy (ipilimumab) and - if BRAF V600 mutation positive - a BRAF inhibitor such as Roche's Zelboraf (vemurafenib) and GlaxoSmithKline's Tafinlar (dabrafenib).

The uptake of Keytruda is promising for Merck, although the product's US debut - ahead of rivals such as BMS' Opdivo (nivolumab) and Roche's MPDL-3280A - came too late to make an impression on the company's third quarter results, which saw sales decline 4% to $10.56bn.

With 900 patients on the drug at a monthly wholesale acquisition cost of $12,500 Merck looks on track to book upwards of $100m from the melanoma indication alone in the coming 12 months, with additional upside as Keytruda rolls out in new markets and for other indications, and also as further patients become eligible over time for treatment due to disease progression on other therapies.

The drug has also just received breakthrough therapy designation from the FDA for patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) who have progressed following platinum-containing chemotherapy.

Merck's third-quarter results were hit as expected by the lingering effect of patent expiries on key products such as cancer drug Temodar (temozolomide) and Singulair (montelukast) for asthma, as well as hepatitis C virus therapy PegIntron (peginterferon alfa-2b) which is being hit by the shift to non-interferon based regimens.

On the plus side, Merck's Januvia (sitagliptin) franchise grew 5% to $1.4bn with volume increases in the US and Europe offset by a price cut in Japan - while anti-inflammatory drugs Remicade (infliximab) and Simponi (golimumab) collectively brought in $774m, a rise of 11%.

Remicade rose 5% to $604m while Simponi brought in $170m, a 35% increase on the same period of 2013 but actually a small decline over its second-quarter 2014 performance.

"Last October, we launched a multi-year initiative to transform Merck and build a platform for sustained, future growth," said Merck's chief executive Kenneth Frazier.

"One year later, we delivered solid third-quarter results and are making steady progress in our transformation," he added.

27th October 2014

From: Sales, Healthcare

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