Merck & Co. (MRK)’s experimental cancer drug that uses the immune system to target tumors triggered a response in about a quarter of lung cancer patients, according to preliminary results of an early study.
In a trial of 38 patients with non-small cell lung cancer, 24 percent had an immune-system response to the drug, called MK-3475 and previously known as lambrolizumab, Merck said today in a statement. Using a measure of whether their tumors shrank, 21 percent responded, the Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based company said.
Merck, the second-biggest U.S. drugmaker, today announced it would fire 8,500 workers and revise its drug development effort to focus on research programs such as MK-3475. The therapy, among a new generation of cancer medicines seeking to harness the body’s immune system, is being studied in seven different clinical trials including 3,000 patients with a variety of tumor types. It has been given a breakthrough designation by U.S. regulators, which means its approval could be sped up as it moves into late-stage trials.
“These early data in lung cancer patients were the basis for Merck’s decision to rapidly advance MK-3475 into a Phase II/III clinical trial,” Eric Rubin, vice president of oncology at Merck, said in a statement.
Merck is competing to get the treatment to market as rivals also push ahead with immune system-based therapies. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. (BMY)’s nivolumab is in final stages of testing, and Roche Holding AG (ROG), the world’s biggest maker of cancer treatments, is also developing a immune-system drug.
Merck shares rose 2.4 percent to $48.74 at 4 p.m. New York time.
The most-common side effects in the 38-person study were fatigue, rash and itching in 16 percent of patients, and diarrhea in 13 percent, Merck said in the statement. One person developed a pulmonary edema, or too much fluid in the lungs, the company said.
MK-3475 belongs to a class of therapies called anti-PD-1 drugs. The medicines turn back on the body’s ability to recognize cancer cells as a threat, taking the brakes off the immune system and spurring T-cells kill the cancer.
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