Merck shares surge anew on lung cancer advance, while Bristol-Myers stock plummets

Merck & Co. Inc. drew ahead in a fierce rivalry for advanced lung cancer treatments on Monday, releasing late-stage clinical trial results showing that a cancer drug combination using its Keytruda reduced patients’ risk of death by half, a significant improvement.

The pairing of Keytruda and chemotherapy has already been approved for advanced lung cancer in the U.S., but the latest data should serve to support uptake and the drug’s sales. Merck MRK, +2.06%  shares rose nearly 3% in heavy Monday trade.

Lung cancer is the most common kind of cancer in the U.S., and smoking is linked with the vast majority of cases.

Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. BMY, -8.24%  also released late-stage trial results Monday morning for a combination of its drugs Opdivo and Yervoy, finding that it improved progression-free survival with patients in a particular subgroup who had a high tumor mutational burden.

Progression-free survival, which looks at how long it takes before a patient’s cancer worsens, is one measure of a cancer therapy’s success but is considered less important than overall survival, which was measured by the Merck trial. Merck added overall survival as another primary endpoint last fall.

The odds of a patient recovering faster with the Merck treatment was 0.49, referring specifically to overall survival, while the odds for a patient on the Bristol-Myers treatment was 0.58, referring specifically to progression-free survival.

Bristol-Myers shares dropped nearly 8% in Monday trade, while Astrazeneca PLC AZN, -1.83%  , another drugmaker working in the space, had shares fall nearly 2%.

Merck and Bristol-Myers both put out results from the same trials, Keynote-189and CheckMate-227, earlier this year, though Monday’s releases were far more detailed.

Read our previous coverage: Merck leaps past rivals with latest lung cancer drug results

Bristol-Myers’ focus on tumor mutation burden, or tumors with a high level of mutations, was criticized then, because the company made changes to the trial while it was already ongoing to measure it.

The idea is that tumor mutation burden could help match cancer patients with the best treatments for their particular disease, which has become a focus of cancer research in recent years.

See more: Bristol-Myers touts lung cancer breakthrough, but critics cry foul

The Merck results support a trend of pairing immuno-oncology drugs, which harness the immune system to fight cancer, with other cancer treatments, including other immuno-oncology drugs, chemotherapy and radiation.

Drugmakers have made big investments in this area, but experts fear it could cause the already-high prices of cancer drugs to double or triple.

Merck shares have surged 7% month-to-date, compared with a nearly 15% drop in Bristol-Myers shares and a 1% rise in the S&P 500 SPX, +0.84%  .

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