ZURICH / MUNICH (Reuters) – Roche's immunotherapy cocktail is slowing down an aggressive form of breast cancer, where new treatment options have become elusive, providing positive news for the Swiss pharmaceutical company, which is pursuing drugs from its rivals.
FILE PHOTO: The logo of the Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche can be seen on January 30, 201
The study results published on Saturday highlight the treatment of triple-negative tumors, which affect 15 percent of breast cancer patients and typically affect younger women. The benefits of Tecentriq proved to be the largest among approximately 40 percent of study participants who had high levels of a protein known as PD-L1, which helps tumors to avoid detection of the immune system.
These women averaged 7.5 months without worsening their disease (PFS) with Roche Tecentriq-plus chemotherapy as a primary treatment compared to 5 months for those who received only chemotherapy, which is the current standard of care.
Peter Schmid, clinical director of St. Bartholomew's Breast Cancer Center in London and lead author of the study, said the results "will change the treatment of triple-negative breast cancer".
"All the benefits were observed in the PD-L1 positive subgroup … we have a very targeted treatment and a targeted population," he added.
Overall survival data (OS) from the IMpassion 130 study are not mature yet, but Roche's Chief Medical Officer Sandra Horning told Reuters she has cause for optimism.
Patients receiving the Tecentriq cocktail averaged 21.3 months, compared with 17.6 months for those receiving chemotherapy, she said.
Horning said the results provide new hope for people struggling with a difficult disease, where patients and doctors urgently need new treatment options.
"It's extraordinary to see a survival advantage of any kind in triple negative breast cancer," she said. "We are pretty excited about the degree of effect."
Roche has filed with the regulatory authorities for approval.
Triple-negative tumors have no hormone receptors or HER2 receptors, so patients will not benefit from hormone therapy or HER2-targeted drugs such as Roche's $ 7 billion a year blockbuster Herceptin or GlaxoSmithKline's Tykerb.
Roche announced in July that the 902-patient study had shown that Tecentriq improved the results of chemotherapy, but the specific data were released at the annual meeting of the European Society of Medical Oncology in Munich on Saturday.
With the Tecentriq immunotherapies from Merck and Bristol-Myers Squibb in the main form of lung cancer, Chief Executive Severin Schwan pursues smaller but still lucrative treatment areas where he can gain a lead.
To date, Tecentriq's revenue has increased 50 percent to 524 million Swiss francs (528 million US dollars) in the first nine months. However, this is only a fraction of the sales of blockbuster checkpoint inhibitors from Merck Keytruda and Bristols Opdivo.
The less common small-cell form of lung cancer also offers Roche the opportunity to be the first to win the blessing of regulators.
"Roche is more of a niche approach, looking for well-defined markets with targeted studies," said Gregoire Biollaz, Fund Manager at Pictet Asset Management, Reuters.
Roche, the largest manufacturer of cancer medicines, needs Tecentriq to be successful. Roche's three largest cancer medicines, Avastin, Herceptin and Rituxan, have annual sales of $ 21 billion, but patent expirations are already putting them out of the competition with cheaper copies of rivals.
Rivals Merck and Bristol-Myers Squibb are testing their own immunotherapy against triple-negative disease, even with partners.
Edited by Edmund Blair and Adrian Croft