Roche Bladder Cancer Trial Extends Immune Drugs’ Reach

May 15, 2014 4:05 pm ET

(Updates with closing shares in eighth paragraph.)

May 15 (Bloomberg) -- An experimental drug from Roche Holding AG shrank tumors in half of patients with advanced bladder cancer in a small trial, the latest sign that immune therapy drugs may work against a broad range of cancers.

In the study, 10 of 20 patients with advanced bladder cancer treated with Roche’s drug, called MPDL3280A, experienced substantial tumor shrinkage. The findings were released yesterday in advance of the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting beginning May 30 in Chicago.

The drug is an antibody against a protein called PD-L1 that helps some cancers avoid being detected and attacked by the immune system. The study is one of several being presented at the meeting that are designed to show whether immune therapy drugs, best known for their use against melanoma, can combat numerous other tumors.

“In all my years of taking care of patients with metastatic bladder cancer, I have not seen responses of this magnitude,” said Daniel Petrylak, an oncologist at the Yale Cancer Center in New Haven, Connecticut, and an investigator on the trial. “Absolutely we need new treatments.”

Roche has begun a second-stage study in bladder cancer that will include 330 patients, according to data posted on the U.S. government’s registry of clinical trials. The Basel, Switzerland-based company, the world’s biggest maker of cancer drugs, is competing with Merck & Co., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., and AstraZeneca Plc to bring new immune therapy drugs to market.

Kidney Cancer

Patients with advanced, metastatic kidney cancer taking doses of Bristol-Myers’s nivolumab, for example, survived for more than two years, on average, according to an abstract released yesterday from a second-stage trial being presented at the oncology meeting. Only about 8 percent of advanced kidney cancer patients live for five years or more on current therapies, according to New York-based Bristol-Myers.

Nivolumab is being tested in combination with Yervoy, the company’s immune therapy already on the market. The data released yesterday disappointed investors, Alex Arfaei, an analyst with BMO Capital Markets Corp., said in a note.

Bristol-Myers shares fell 6.1 percent to $48.93 at the close in New York, the biggest one-day slide since August 2012. Roche shares rose 1.3 percent to 266 Swiss francs. AstraZeneca rose 1.6 percent to 4,726.5 pence.

Merck, meanwhile, will present data at the meeting from an early trial of its immune therapy drug MK-3475 in advanced head and neck cancers.

The Whitehouse Station, New Jersey-based company’s drug has been submitted to U.S. regulators for approval in treating patients with advanced melanoma who have previously received Bristol-Myers’s Yervoy.