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Merck Scores in Investigational Melanoma Study Results

Jon C. Ogg

Skin cancer treatments remain elusive. While some drugs are on the market for advanced-stage treatment, the most common and longest method of initial treatment still involves the doctor taking the scalpel and cutting it off an inch or centimeter at a time. The problem is when skin cancer goes metastatic and reaches other organs. Merck & Co. (MRK) has some promising melanoma trial data on Monday.

The American Cancer Society shows that there are about 76,690 new cases of melanoma each year, and about 9,480 deaths come from melanoma. The ACS also shows that skin cancer is the most common of all cancers, but while accounting for less than 5% of skin cancer cases it causes most skin cancer deaths. As we have all become sun worshippers the number of new melanoma cases has been increasing for at least 30 years.

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Merck released an update to its early-stage study data showing that it has an 81% survival rate at the one-year mark. The phase Ib data is of its investigational MK-3475 against advanced melanoma. Merck's data was presented at the International Congress of the Society for Melanoma Research. This was the first time overall survival and progression-free survival have been presented from this study.

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Dr. Roger M. Perlmutter, president, Merck Research Laboratories said, “These results provide further insight into the therapeutic properties of MK-3475 in patients with advanced melanoma. Simply put, our data make us hopeful that this novel investigational therapy could potentially provide meaningful benefits to patients suffering from this malignant disease.”

An independent source in the press release indicated that these findings support further study both as a monotherapy and in combination in various solid tumors. Partial and complete responses occurred as late as 48 and 70 weeks. Median duration of response and median overall survival have yet to be reached for any dose evaluated.

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Merck showed that it has completed enrollment in a Phase II registration trial comparing two doses of MK-3475 versus chemotherapy in patients with advanced melanoma who have progressed after prior therapy. A Phase III registration trial of MK-3475 versus ipilimumab in ipilimumab-naïve patients with advanced melanoma is ongoing. Merck further said that it plans to initiate combination trials this year and in early 2014 in melanoma and other cancers.

With a $140 billion market cap, it is going to likely take more than Phase I data to move the needle. Either way, melanoma drugs can be the next blockbuster drugs for any pharmaceutical giant or biotech which can treat the disease.

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