Roche Drops as Bristol-Myers Leads New Cancer Race: Zurich Mover

Roche Holding AG had its longest streak of declines since 2011 as some analysts put Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. ahead in the race to develop the top drug in a new class of cancer immunotherapies.

The shares fell 3.7 percent, the most since Nov. 21, 2011, to 230.30 Swiss francs at the close of trading in Zurich today. It was the sixth day of declines, the longest streak since Nov. 24, 2011.

Bristol-Myers is “well in the lead” with a combination of Yervoy, a medicine already on the market, with its experimental immune therapy nivolumab, Chris Schott, a New York-based analyst for JPMorgan Chase & Co., wrote in a note to investors today. Meanwhile, U.S. drugmaker Merck & Co. is rolling forward “the next agent to watch,” Schott wrote.

“Roche now seems to be number three,” said Birgit Kulhoff, a fund manager with Rahn & Bodmer Co. in Zurich. “That seems to say they probably haven’t left the race, but they definitely are not leading.”

Roche’s version looked to be less effective than its U.S. competitors in trials presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting in Chicago, Kulhoff said.

The Roche, Bristol-Myers and Merck drugs all work by preventing cancer cells from using an off-switch called PD-1 to block the body’s immune T-cells from attacking. The therapies from Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based Merck and New York-based Bristol-Myers interact directly with PD-1.

‘Attack Mode’

Roche’s therapy takes a slightly different tactic, instead blocking PD-L1, a protein that a cancer cell can use as a “stop sign” for the T-cell’s PD-1, Niko Andre, Roche’s global head of medical affairs, said in an interview before the conference.

“The T-cell can go directly into attack mode,” Andre said. The strategy could be used to attack a broad variety of different types of tumors, he said.

Roche’s version looked “somewhat less active but potentially safer,” Leerink Swann LLC analysts led by Boston-based Seamus Fernandez wrote in a report. The Bristol-Myers drugs “set a new standard” for their speedy and effective shrinkage of tumors, while Merck’s experimental treatment beat expectations, the Leerink Swann team wrote.

Roche’s third-best-selling cancer drug Avastin also saw mixed results in studies at the cancer conference over the weekend, failing to help brain tumor patients live longer but benefiting women with cervical cancer. German drugmaker Merck KGaA’s Erbitux also helped patients live longer than Avastin did in the first head-to-head test of the drug in people with metastatic colon cancer.

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