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Merck and Incyte present promising results of a combination cancer treatment

Their drugs combined showed better results for shrinking cancer tumors and preventing progression of advanced melanoma.

Incyte Corp. scientists work on a chemical structure
Incyte Corp. scientists work on a chemical structureRead moreIncyte Corp.

A new study combining Incyte's immune-oncology drug Epacadostat and Merck's Keytruda cancer treatment in patients with advanced melanoma showed increased effectiveness.

Incyte Corp., a Delaware biopharmaceutical firm, and drug maker Merck presented the data over the weekend at the European Society of Medical Oncology Congress in Madrid.

A combination of Incyte's oral pill and Merck's injectable medicine shrank metastatic melanoma tumors, or caused the tumors to disappear, in 56 percent of the 65 patients in the Phase 1-2 study. With Keytruda alone, tumors shrank or disappeared in 33 percent of patients, based on Merck's past studies.

Keytruda is now approved as a solo treatment for advanced melanoma, non-small-cell lung cancer, head and neck cancer, bladder cancer, classic Hodgkin's lymphoma, and other cancers with a distinct genetic mutation, a Merck spokeswoman said.

Keytruda had worldwide sales of $1.5 billion in the first six months this year.

Among other findings presented at the oncology meeting in Spain were that the advanced melanoma did not progress, or get worse, in half the patients given Epacadostat plus Keytruda for 12.4 months. The disease progressed within four months to six months with Keytruda alone.

Among patients who had no previous treatment for advanced melanoma, the disease did not progress for up to 22.8 months when the patients were given the Merck-Incyte drug combination.

As far as adverse side effects, the most serious were rashes, elevated liver enzymes, fatigue, and body aches and pains in about 20 percent of the patients. With Keytruda alone, adverse side effects were reported by 17 percent of patients.

"We are adding significantly to the efficacy profile of Keytruda, but we are not significantly adding to the toxicity burden. That seems to be the takeaway," an Incyte spokesman said.

Merck and Incyte have enrolled 700 patents in a larger Phase 3 study, in which half are taking only Keytruda and the other half the combination Keytruda-Epacadostat. The study will conclude next May.

Separate studies are planned with Bristol-Myers Squibb's Opdivo drug and Epacadostat for lung and head and neck cancers.

Incyte was founded in 2002 by former employees of DuPont Pharmaceuticals in Wilmington. The team invented Epacadostat a few years later. Incyte employs more than 1,000, the majority in Wilmington. Merck employs about 9,200 in West Point and Upper Gwynedd, Montgomery County.