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UPDATE 1-Roche aims Tecentriq at early lung cancer after data shows benefit

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* Cancer scientists say trial data a first in early lung cancer

* Roche says benefit greater in PD-L1 positive tumours

* Swiss drugmaker hopes for accelerated approval in 2021 (Adds detail about subgroup in graf 7, updates slug, adds bullets)

By John Miller

ZURICH, May 19 (Reuters) - An immunotherapy showed for the first time it can help early-stage lung cancer patients survive longer without their disease returning, according to data on Wednesday, a potential turning point for such drugs to be used before tumours spread.

The drug, Tecentriq from Switzerland's Roche, works like other immunotherapies including Merck's Keytruda and Opdivo from Bristol Myers Squibb, helping take the brakes off the immune system.

While regarded as an important breakthrough, this class of drugs has so far been deployed against advanced lung cancer that has metastasized, attacking other organs.

This new data, released at the 2021 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting, demonstrates deploying Tecentriq earlier, when surgery is possible, can help delay cancer recurrence, scientists said.

"Though surgery can cure some patients with early-stage lung cancer, disease recurrence is still very common," Stanford University Medical professor Heather Wakelee, the lead study author, said.

"Until this trial, the only treatment that was known to help reduce that risk for most patients was chemotherapy."

In Roche's trial, Tecentriq helped patients with stage II-III lung cancer survive disease-free for a median of 42.3 months following surgery and chemotherapy, compared to 35.3 months for patients who didn't get Tecentriq.

Tecentriq cut the risk of disease recurrence or death by 21%, the data showed. For a smaller group of patients whose tumours expressed PD-L1, a protein that helps the cancer hide from the immune system, the benefit was greater, Roche said, with risk reduction rising to 34%.

While Bristol Myers and Merck have their own trials in earlier-stage lung cancer, Roche, armed with Wednesday's data, may have a short head start which could help lift late-to-market Tecentriq's fortunes.

The drug reaped $3 billion in 2020 sales, far behind more-established Keytruda's $14.3 billion and Opdivo's $7 billion.

Roche's oncology product development head, Charles Fuchs, is hopeful Tecentriq could win accelerated early lung cancer approval this year.

"This is the kind of clear result, with an established endpoint, disease-free survival, that is clinically meaningful and that we hope health authorities will embrace," Fuchs said in an interview about the ASCO data. (Reporting by John Miller; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)