Drug Development

Cancer powerhouse Roche elbows its way into a checkpoint showdown with Bristol-Myers, Merck



Watch out Bristol-Myers Squibb. Roche is coming for some of your embattled lung cancer business.

The FDA wasted no time in stamping Roche’s up-and-coming PD-L1 checkpoint drug Tecentriq approved for use in the second-line patient group in non-small cell lung cancer. Genentech investigators had nailed down a 4.2-month median improvement in overall survival for the therapy.

The approval sets up a three-way fight for the big lung cancer market, with Merck’s Keytruda now given a solid edge after Bristol-Myers’ Opdivo was routed in a failed attempt to demonstrate efficacy in a broad group of frontline patients.

That key setback, which shaved billions off of Bristol-Myers market cap, underscored that the checkpoint market is still far from being wrapped up by the early movers. Roche will now step in with a powerhouse oncology team to make its case for Tecentriq, the first of these immunotherapies to target PD-L1. The Roche group believes that will help distinguish their work in comparison to the PD-1s from Merck and Bristol-Myers, looking to back up its case that Tecentriq is less toxic and more effective.

Some analysts give Roche good odds at finding blockbuster success with their checkpoint, with peak sales estimates breaking the $5 billion barrier.

AstraZeneca, meanwhile, has yet to make its debut, looking to advance combo therapies that can leapfrog the pioneers. And Pfizer is partnered with Merck KGaA on a pivotal effort of its own.

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