Merck’s Keytruda still leading cancer drug research after major cancer conference

Merck’s still got it.

After gaining a lead in the race to develop treatments for advanced lung cancer in May, the drugmaker MRK, +2.06%  recently presented additional positive trial results for star cancer drug Keytruda, at the American Society for Clinical Oncology’s annual meeting. Company shares rose 1.7% in extremely heavy Monday trade.

Among the more important trials was one testing Keytruda on its own as a first-line treatment for lung cancer.

In the late-stage trial, called Keynote-042, patients with advanced or metastatic lung cancer whose cancer tumors expressed a particular protein called PD-L1 survived “significantly longer” than those who were treated with chemotherapy alone, Merck said, describing Keytruda as the only drug of its kind to show this kind of benefit.

Read: Merck shares surge anew on lung cancer advance

Keytruda also had positive results in another phase 3 trial, Keynote-407, which looked at a combination of Keytruda and chemotherapy as a first-line treatment for lung cancer. In the late-stage trial, patients on Keytruda plus chemotherapy had a 36% lower risk of death compared with chemotherapy alone.

Improvements in rate of survival existed regardless of whether patients’ cancers expressed the PD-L1 protein, Merck said, and using Keytruda with chemotherapy also significantly improved patients’ rate of survival without their cancer progressing.

“Keytruda shines” in non-small cell lung cancer, was the verdict of SunTrust Robinson Humphrey analyst John Boris.

Though Boris questioned whether Keynote-042’s trial design — specifically, over-recruiting patients with squamous cancers, which often spread to other parts of the body unless caught early — resulted in its success, “regardless of what exactly caused Keytruda’s edge… the fact remains that Opdivo still does not have an indication in [first-line non-small cell lung cancer],” and Keytruda is quickly becoming a widely used treatment, he said.

The unifying theme of the recent

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