Lilly drug beats Roche’s Avastin in advanced colon cancer

September 30, 2013

Cancer drug Erbitux extended the lives of patients with a form of advanced colon cancer more than seven months longer than those taking Roche Holding AG’s Avastin, manufacturer Merck KGaA of Germany said Saturday.

Merck sells the medicine outside North America. Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and  Co. and New York-based Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. are the partners for the drug in the United States. Erbitux generated sales for Merck of $1.2 billion last year, while. Lilly realized about $400 million in revenue from the drug in 2012.

In a trial among 342 patients with advanced colon cancer lacking certain genetic mutations, those receiving Erbitux had a median survival of 33.1 months, compared with 25.6 months for those treated with Avastin, according to a Merck statement of data presented at a cancer conference in Amsterdam. Both drugs were combined with chemotherapy.

The findings suggest that Erbitux, already approved in Europe as a treatment for patients with so-called KRAS wild-type tumors, may have a role in a sub-group of patients with so-called RAS wild-type cancer. Merck, based in Darmstadt, Germany, is studying the results of two other trials for evidence of the same trend, with a view to seeking regulatory approval in Europe for the drug in patients with RAS wild-type cancer.

“Of course, we are highly interested to get the right treatment to the right patients,” Oliver Kisker, head of clinical development at Merck’s Serono unit, said. The additional 7.5 months is “very impressive, very interesting.”

Erbitux and Avastin are so-called monoclonal antibodies designed to block a protein that causes cancer cells to multiply. By coupling Erbitux or Avastin with a trio of cell-killing chemotherapy drugs, doctors aim both to stop tumors from growing and to shrink them.

Among the 16 percent of patients with a mutant form of RAS colon cancer, those who received Erbitux had a median overall survival of 20.3 months compared with 20.6 months for those who received Avastin, according to the Merck report.

The study missed its main goal of shrinking tumors more than Avastin did in patients with the mutant form of KRAS colon cancer, Merck said in June.

Lilly shares were down 14 cents Monday, to $50.36 each.

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