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Merck shares pop as its Keytruda drug results power ahead of Bristol-Myers, Roche

The immunotherapies boost patient survival rates, studies show
Cancer cell culture seen under a microscope
Unlike chemotherapy and radiation, immunotherapies may have milder side effects

Merck & Co (NYSE:MRK), Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE:BMY) and Roche Holding AG (VTX: ROG) cancer drugs all beat expectations, but Merck beat them a little more handily.

Merck presented promising results on Monday for its cancer drug Keytruda at the American Association for Cancer Research’s annual meeting.

In a trial known as Keynote-189, Keytruda was shown to reduce the risk of death by 51% when combined with chemotherapy, versus chemotherapy on its own.

“Our goal is to extend the lives of patients with lung cancer, and the unambiguous survival findings from Keynore-189 showing the risk of death was reduced by half in the Keytruda arm are important not only for patients but also for the medical community,” said Dr. Roger M. Perlmutter, president of Merck Research Laboratories, in a press statement.

Shares of Merck rose over 3% in Monday morning trading.

At the same time, Bristol-Myer’s drug, Opdivo, along with another of its medicines, Yervoy, reduced the risk of cancer progression or death in its study by 42% when compared with chemotherapy on its own.

Shares of Bristol-Myers Squibb fell 8% to US$54 after its drug was surpassed by Keytruda’s performance.

Read: Bristol-Myers falls after Citi analyst says Pfizer not interested in buying the drugmaker

New cancer treatments from Merck, Bristol-Myers and Roche that harness the body's immune system are ready to go mainstream, but they come with high price tags because they combine already expensive drugs.

Keytruda and Opdivo each cost about $13,500 monthly per patient.

Roche also shared its progression-free survival data at the conference. According to the study, of the 692 patients that took part in the trial, those that received a combination of the Swiss drug maker’s cancer immunotherapy Tecentriq with one of its other cancer drugs, Avastin, along with carboplatin and paclitaxe had a median progression-free survival of 8.3 months, while the group in the trial that received Avastin and the chemotherapy without the immunotherapy had a median of about 6.8 months.

The World Health Organization estimated that 1.69 million people died of lung cancer in 2015.

Like chemotherapy and radiation, immunotherapies can have side effects, but they tend to look very different than those from immunotherapies.

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