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Immunotherapy combination studies take the lead ahead of ASCO 2018

Study results from Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and Merck & Co. Inc., the two big players in the immuno-oncology field, are among those Wall Street analysts are focusing on leading up to the annual American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Chicago from June 1 to June 5.

Abstracts of many of the studies were released after the close of U.S. markets on May 16, prompting drugmakers to announce which data they are highlighting at the meeting.

Bristol-Myers will present results from Checkmate-227, a phase 3 trial evaluating a combination of either Opdivo and Yervoy — drugs that work by stimulating the immune system to fight cancer — or Opdivo and chemotherapy, as the initial treatment of a specific type of non-small cell lung cancer, or NSCLC.

The tumors of the patients in the trial had less than 1% of a protein called PD-L1 that exists on the surface of cancer cells and suppresses the immune system. At a minimum follow-up period of 11.2 months, those who had received the Opdivo plus chemotherapy combination experienced improvement in the length of time they were alive without the disease worsening.

Cowen and Co. analyst Steve Scala said data from the study may provide an interesting comparison to Merck & Co.'s Keynote-189 trial.

Meanwhile, Merck & Co. is expected to present interim data from Keynote-407, a phase 3 trial of the company's immune-boosting cancer drug Keytruda in combination with chemotherapy medicines carboplatin and paclitaxel for treating patients with squamous NSCLC that has spread to other sites in the body.

According to the U.S. company, 58.4% of the 101 patients who were treated with the combination showed a reduction in tumor size after a median follow-up of 7.7 months, compared to 35% for those who received chemotherapy alone.

Despite calling the data on objective response rate "impressive," Cowen's Scala noted that investors will be interested in more data on the trial's main goals — the length of time the patients survived without the disease worsening and the length of time the patients were still alive after the start of the treatment.

Research to be discussed also includes findings from Roche Holding AG's IMpower150 study, which showed that the combination of the Swiss company's Tecentriq and Avastin plus carboplatin and paclitaxel helped non-squamous NSCLC patients live longer versus treatment with just Avastin and the chemotherapy drugs.

Meanwhile, Loxo Oncology Inc. will showcase the interim results of its ongoing phase 1 clinical study for Loxo-292, a cancer drug which selectively targets tumors exhibiting rearranged during transfection, or RET, fusions and mutations. The company said 69% of the 32 evaluable patients with RET-fusion positive tumors had significant tumor size reduction after being treated with the medicine.

Following the positive early data from the study, Loxo Oncology's shares were up 20.09% to $167.53 as of market close on May 17.

Another anticipated presenter in the cancer conference is Germany's Merck KGaA, which said that its investigational cancer therapies M7824 and tepotinib are showing favorable outcomes in early-stage trials for treating NSCLC.

Based on the preliminary data from an early stage trial assessing the safety of Merck KGaA's fusion protein M7824, about 40.7% of patients with NSCLC showed signs of tumor shrinkage. The company added that a separate study for tepotinib showed the drug's anti-cancer effects in 12 out of 15 patients with a mutation-driven type of NSCLC, while nine patients had a reduction in cancer growth in their body.

CAR-T cell therapy results

Investors are also watching developments in the field of chimeric antigen receptor T-cell, or CAR-T cell, therapies. CAR-T cell therapies work by manipulating a patient's own disease-fighting T cells and then infusing them back into the body to fight blood cancers.

Analysts from both RBC Capital Markets LLC and Evercore ISI Research mentioned presentations from Celgene Corp. and Gilead Sciences Inc., although their abstracts were not updated, highlighting the importance of details related to the safety and response durability of their respective CAR-T cell treatments.

"Overall, I don't see any major surprises in the abstracts, but I do see some updates which are incrementally positive for Bristol," Evercore ISI analyst Umer Raffat wrote.

The 2018 American Society of Clinical Oncology, or ASCO, meeting is expected to bring together more than 32,000 oncology professionals from all over the world, with more than 2,500 abstracts to be presented on-site and an additional 3,350 abstracts to be published online.