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Merck KGaA sees immunotherapy drug holding its own in cancer race

FRANKFURT, June 1 (Reuters) - The head of Merck KGaA's healthcare division said she expected its cancer drug avelumab, jointly developed with Pfizer, to be among the first two or three to market in a field of immunotherapy pharmaceuticals that harness the power of the immune system in a range of cancer types.

Other developers of immunotherapy drugs have won a head start over the German company in a field that is developing quickly.

Bristol-Myers Squibb's Opdivo has been approved by U.S. regulators to treat advanced melanoma and a form of lung cancer. Keytruda, a drug developed by Merck & Co Inc, has been approved for advanced melanoma since September and is awaiting regulatory approval in lung cancer treatment.

But the head of healthcare at Germany's Merck KGaA, Belen Garijo, said its rival drug avelumab was well on track to play a role in the market.

"We are now in the race," she told Reuters.

The development of avelumab is most advanced in lung cancer, where it has reached the third and last phase of testing on humans required for regulatory approval. It is in the second phase in Merkel cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer, and in the first stage in seven other cancer types.

"There are indications where we believe we can be part of the first two or first three immunotherapies, like ovarian, gastric, head and neck, bladder and renal cancer, for example," said Garijo.

Avelumab has the potential to come to market as early as 2017, she added.

(Reporting by Ludwig Burger and Patricia Weiss; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)