Business, Immuno-oncology

After an epic battle of blockbusters, Merck leapfrogs Bristol-Myers to take the lead on PD-1/L1 market

Merck did it.

In one of the most intense commercial and research development rivalries in biopharma history, Merck’s Keytruda has edged ahead of Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Opdivo for the first time since the showdown got started nearly 4 years ago.

This morning Merck reported that Keytruda earned $1.66 billion in Q2 — an 89% increase over the same period just a year ago. Yesterday, Bristol-Myers reported that their checkpoint Opdivo scored $1.62 billion — up 36% — for the same period.

Roger Perlmutter

To be sure, Merck has pulled out all the stops in its epic head-to-head struggle with Bristol-Myers, which took a big, early lead. But it’s the R&D team under Roger Perlmutter who enjoys the lion’s share of the credit here.

Bristol-Myers made a poor decision on how to initially tackle frontline lung cancer, and it has yet to correct the imbalance, even after bringing in Tom Lynch as the new R&D chief in a post-snafu changeup. Merck’s decision to shift to a Keytruda/chemo combo opened the door early to some significant changes in the standard of care for frontline lung cancer. And they’re backing that up with the money train. 

Merck doesn’t just have Keytruda in the pipeline, but you could be forgiven for thinking so. At one point recently the pharma giant counted more than 750 clinical trials underway involving their PD-1. To be sure, many of those involved collaborations with little biotechs who were paying the freight for the work, but it underscores the overall importance Merck assigns to this mega-blockbuster.

It also spotlights the explosion of work being done among the other contenders for the crown as well as all the next-gen checkpoint work being done, where a whole new generation of companies looks to make their own mark.

This isn’t baseball, though. Second place counts for quite a lot in the game of blockbusters, and Bristol-Myers team will just double down as it continues to scrap for every advantage in a global market.


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