ASCO Ends: Winners & Losers at the Key Cancer Research Event

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The world of cancer research is changing fast. This space is seeing huge developments and companies are taking great strides in treating a variety of cancers.

Cancer research is definitely an exciting area and one that investors will keep a close watch on in the coming years. This is because the disease is one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality across the world preceded only by heart disease.

The five-day ASCO conference in Chicago, which is basically the most important annual cancer research event, concluded yesterday. The conference featured clinical updates from several companies about the latest developments in treating the disease.

Merck MRK stole the limelight at ASCO after presenting data from several cancer studies of its PD-L1 inhibitor, Keytruda.

The data presentation from Merck, which garnered the most attention from physicians and investors was from a second interim analysis of a pivotal lung cancer study on Keytruda - phase III KEYNOTE-407 study . The study evaluated Keytruda in combination with chemotherapy for the first-line treatment of metastatic squamous NSCLC, which is a difficult-to-treat lung cancer patient population. The data from the study showed that the combination of Keytruda plus chemotherapy led to significant improvement in both overall survival (OS) and progression-free survival regardless of PD-L1 expression. PD-L1 is a protein present on the surface of cells.

The risk of death (OS) was reduced by 36% compared to chemotherapy alone. The PFS improvement was nearly half for patients in the Keytruda combination group compared with chemotherapy alone.

The data was termed "practice changing" by CNBC - changing the way doctors look at prescribing these drugs to cancer patients. It further cemented Merck's position in the lung cancer market, which is the most lucrative oncology sector.

In this context, we must mention that Roche RHHBY also presented data from a similar late-stage study, which showed that Tecentriq (atezolizumab) plus chemotherapy reduced the risk of disease worsening or death (PFS) by 29% in advanced squamous NSCLC patients versus chemotherapy alone.

Coming back to Merck, the company also presented data from another pivotal lung cancer study (KEYNOTE-042) evaluating Keytruda monotherapy in first-line NSCLC patients with PD-L1 expression of at least 1%. This study also showed that treatment with Keytruda led to improved survival. Meanwhile, four and five years follow-up data presented from two advanced melanoma studies showed that treatment with Keytruda led to long-term survival benefit. Interim data from a cohort of a phase II study, KEYNOTE-158, evaluating Keytruda as a monotherapy in patients with previously treated advanced small cell lung cancer (SCLC) demonstrated encouraging response rates in the overall population of SCLC patients as well as in patients whose tumors express PD-L1.

Meanwhile, Keytruda also demonstrated encouraging ORR in studies evaluating the Lenvima/Keytruda combination in four different tumor types and Keytruda monotherapy for the first-line treatment of advanced clear cell RCC. Merck & partner AstraZeneca also presented positive Lynparza combo data in breast cancer. Shares of Merck have gone up by more than 3% since Friday, Jun 1 on ASCO strength.

Nektar Therapeutics NKTR was the biggest loser at ASCO. Nektar along with partner Bristol-Myers BMY , presented preliminary data from a mid-stage study evaluating NKTR-214 in combination with Bristol-Myers' PD-L1 inhibitor Opdivo in several tumor types. The response rates in melanoma and kidney cancer patients did not impress investors, resulting in a 42% fall in Nektar's stock on Jun 4, which was probably the worst performance by an S&P 500 Index member in the last five years. (Read more: Nektar and Bristol-Myers Present Data on Cancer Study ).

Merck, Bristol-Myers and Nektar currently have a Zacks Rank #3 (Hold). You can see the complete list of today's Zacks #1 Rank (Strong Buy) stocks here .

Bristol-Myers also presented data on Opdivo at ASCO. In a late-stage study evaluating Opdivo versus Yervoy in a broad range of patients with resected stage III or IV melanoma, Opdivo demonstrated sustained, superior recurrence-free survival versus Yervoy. In the study, Opdivo plus chemotherapy showed improved PFS versus chemotherapy in first-line lung cancer patients with PD-L1 expression <1%.

Celgene CELG and partner Bluebird Bio presented early-stage data for the CAR-T cell therapy bb2121 in patients with late-stage relapsed/refractory multiple myeloma. Though the study showed a median PFS of 11.8 months in this heavily pre-treated patient population, the data did not impress investors.

Celgene also presented data on another CAR-T therapy - liso-ce (JCAR017) - which it acquired from its acquisition of Juno earlier this year. The data showed that at six months, 49% of the patients with relapsed/refractory aggressive B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) remained in remission while 46% maintained a complete response. (Read more: Celgene Presents Data on CAR T Therapy, Revlimid & Pomalyst )

Novartis NVS announced positive data from a combination study on breast cancer drug Kisqali and from two long-term leukemia studies on Tasigna. (Read More: Novartis Announces Positive Data on Kisqali and Tasigna ).

AbbVie ABBV presented early data from a phase II study evaluating a combination of its cancer drugs Imbruvica plus Venclexta (venetoclax) for the first-line treatment of patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).  The data demonstrated high rates of responses in such patients. Also, interim data from a late-stage study evaluating Imbruvica plus Roche's Rituxan in Waldenström's macroglobulinemia, a rare form of Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, showed that the combination significantly reduced the risk of disease progression or death by 80% compared to placebo plus Rituxan.

Pfizer, Amgen, AstraZeneca and J&J also made some cancer data presentations at the meeting.

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

This article appears in: Investing , Business , Stocks
Referenced Symbols: RHHBY , BMY , NVS , MRK , ABBV

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