Merck KGaA Doesn’t Rule Out Pursuing Lung-Cancer Vaccine

Merck KGaA hasn’t ruled out pursuing its therapeutic cancer vaccine L-BLP25 after a trial showed the treatment prolonged the lives of a group of advanced lung cancer patients by 50 percent compared with placebo.

A group of 806 patients who received the vaccine following a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy survived an average of 10 months longer than those who received the placebo, the Darmstadt, Germany-based maker of cancer drug Erbitux said in a statement yesterday.

Merck said Dec. 19 that the experimental vaccine previously known as Stimuvax failed to show a significant improvement in overall survival among patients in the study. Most analysts haven’t included sales estimates for the treatment, which Merck initially expected to be a $1 billion-a-year product. Merck is still testing the vaccine in 425 patients in a trial in Asia called Inspire.

“L-BLP25 is still an active part of our pipeline and we’re in discussions with regulatory authorities and the scientific community about what we should do next,” Phyllis Carter, a spokeswoman for Merck, said today in a telephone interview.

Non-small cell lung cancer is the most common form of the disease and most people diagnosed with it are at an advanced stage, the company said. L-BLP25 is a therapeutic vaccine which is designed to stimulate a patient’s immune system to identify and target cancer cells with the MUC1 gene, which has an effect on tumor growth and survival.

Merck licensed the drug in 2001 from Oncothyreon Inc., which said yesterday it was “encouraged” by the results. Merck would have paid its Seattle-based partner $90 million, plus royalties on sales in the mid-teens in the U.S. and the high single digits in the rest of the world had the trial been successful.

Simos Simeonidis, an analyst with Cowen and Co. who has an outperform rating on Oncothyreon, said in a note to investors yesterday that he would be “surprised” if Merck didn’t pursue the program further based on the size of the group of patients who benefited.