Despite cancer being the second-leading cause of death in the US, researchers have made some incremental progress in the battle to fight it. 

In its annual report, “Cancer Facts and Figures 2017”, the American Cancer Society (ACS) reported that five-year survival rates for prostate cancer and female breast cancer, have increased 99% and 91%, respectively, from 2006 to 2012. Those are two of the most commonly diagnosed cancer types. However, lung cancer in particular hasn’t been so easy to deal with. 

The ACS continued to reveal that almost a quarter-million people, 222,5000, will be diagnosed with lung cancer this year. It’s the second-most diagnosed cancer in the US and the most commonly diagnosed in the world. People diagnosed are three times more likely to die from lung cancer than the next-deadliest, colon cancer. 

In response, Sean Williams, writing for The Motley Fool has taken a look at the three biopharma companies leading the fight, in his view. 

First up is Merck. The company’s immuno-oncology drug, Keytruda is one of the most successful new cancer drugs. She said. “Merck’s Keytruda is currently approved to treat select advanced lung-cancer patients in both first- and second-line no-small lung cancer type. In the Keynote-024 trial for first-line advanced NSCLC patients who had at least 50% PD-L1 expressing cells (PD-L1 is a ligand that binds to PD-1 receptors on cells), progression-free survival was improved by 4.3 months (10.3 months vs. 6 months) compared to the chemotherapy arm, with a secondary overall survival benefit also observed. This increase in overall survival was the most exciting aspect of the study given that dozens of patients crossed over to the Keytruda arm from the chemotherapy arm once disease progression was noted.”

Although Bristol-Myers Squibb hasn’t experienced the same scale of success as Merck with their immuno-oncology compounds, Opdivo and Yervoy, it certainly has still had an impact. Its CheckMate-026 study as a first-line NSCLC treatment with Opdivo in patients whose tumours had at least 5% PD-L1 expression failed, and in a strange result, the chemotherapy arm showed a better result in progression-free survival. 

“Opdivo has been, and continues to be, a foundational therapy in second-line advanced NSCLC,” said Williams. “Approved in October 2015 for second-line NSCLC, Opdivo wound up demonstrating a 19% partial or complete response in its pivotal-stage trial, leading to an average survival time of 12.2 months and an average progression-free survival for partial and complete responds of 17 months.”

There is also increasingly positive data emerging from a Phase I/II trial of Opdivo and Yervoy in recurrent small cell lung cancer recently. 

Lastly, Roche has brought in $3.4 billion in sales with its Avastin drug used to treat NSCLC. The targeted therapy blocks vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). The company also has immuno-oncology approaches, notably Tecentriq, a PD-L1-targeting therapy. Last October, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved it for advanced NSCLC patients whose disease had progressed during or after platinum-containing chemotherapy, and progressed after targeted therapy if the cancer has EGFR or ALK mutations. 

Williams concluded, “Taking into account that no drug developer has a more expansive product portfolio and pipeline devoted to oncology than Roche, the company’s a good bet to lead the charge against lung cancer in the years that lie ahead.”