Merck’s Keytruda could face direct competition from new Chinese drug

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Chinese drug developer BeiGene (NASDAQ: BGNE) on Monday announced strong clinical results for its cancer immunotherapy, tislelizumab. A phase 3 trial tested the drug along with two other chemotherapy treatments in patients with non-small cell lung cancer and successfully met its primary endpoints of improving patient survival rates.

The company also added that it will seek approval in China. Tislelizumab has already been approved in the country for treatment-resistant Hodgkin lymphoma in patients who have tried two previous cancer treatments.

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If approved, tislelizumab would compete directly with Merck‘s (NYSE: MRK) clean cancer supermedicine, Keytruda, which was approved last year to treat non-small cell lung cancer in China.

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Keytruda had more than $ 10 billion in global sales in 2019. While most of this is from the US market, the sheer population of the Chinese market means that Keytruda’s sales in this area could easily exceed US sales in China. ‘to come up.

However, approval of tislelizumab could divert market share from Keytruda. Both drugs are similar in that they block a specific protein known as PD-1 (programmed cell death protein 1). This protein is responsible for preventing the immune system from destroying a cell. The idea is that by inhibiting this protein in cancer cells, the immune system will target them more effectively and prevent them from spreading.

Tislelizumab was originally purchased by Celgene in 2017. However, the pharmaceutical giant ended up abandoning the deal, returning the rights to the drug to BieGene and paying a $ 150 million termination fee in the process.

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