Merck Drug Boosts Survival of Advanced Melanoma Patients

Merck & Co.’s cancer drug being evaluated in nine different malignancies kept more than four of five melanoma patients alive for a year in a study, including some who had exhausted all other treatment options.

The research presented at the International Congress of the Society for Melanoma Research in Philadelphia found 41 percent responded to treatment and 9 percent showed evidence of the tumor disappearing. While the improvement emerged within three months for most patients, several responded more than six months later. One had a remission after 70 weeks of therapy.

The drug is from a new class of medicines known as PD-1 inhibitors that harness the body’s immune system to attack cancer. Merck, based in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, is studying the medicine, called MK-3475, in more than 3,000 patients in cancer types including lung, bladder, breast and colorectal tumors. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and Roche Holding AG have similar treatments in development.

“It looks quite promising,” said Eric Rubin, Merck’s vice president of oncology, in a telephone interview. “At one year, 81 percent of patients are alive, which in an advanced melanoma population is quite striking. Forty percent or less are typically alive at one year.”

The results provide the first look at overall survival among 135 patients taking the medication and add five more months of data to the company-funded study published in the New England Journal of Medicine and presented at a cancer meeting in June. The study found similar response rates in patients previously treated with Bristol-Myers’ Yervoy, a different type of drug that was the first medicine to extend life for melanoma patients when it was approved in 2011.

Rival Trials

New York-based Bristol-Myers is already testing combination therapy, a path Merck will follow this year. The development program for Bristol-Myers’s PD-1 inhibitor drug, nivolumab, consists of more than 25 studies. The drug is being tested as monotherapy and in combination with Yervoy and other therapies in multiple tumor types such as lung, melanoma, kidney, liver, blood, breast, gastric and pancreatic cancers.

MK-3475’s benefits appear to last. Of the 49 patients who responded to treatment, 88 percent haven’t progressed. One patient is still benefiting from treatment after 65 weeks, Rubin said. Side effects include fatigue, itching, rash, diarrhea, joint pain, headache and nausea. Signs of liver damage and kidney failure occurred in two patients.

Just 15 percent to 20 percent of patients with advanced melanoma are expected to survive five years. Doctors used to predict an average life expectancy for final-stage patients at about 9 months, said Lynn Schuchter, an oncologist at Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania in June. Now the statistics are in flux thanks to new drugs from GlaxoSmithKline Plc and the medicines in development.