AstraZeneca Shows That With Immune Cancer Drugs, No One Knows What's Next

May 15, 2017 · forbes.com

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Shares in AstraZeneca are up 9% to $33.82 after the London-based drug giant announced that its cancer drug Imfinzi worked in a clinical trial to slow the progression of lung tumors in patients whose cancer was not treatable with surgery, capping off a week that's driven home a clear message about a class of cancer drugs Wall Street analysts think could be generating $30 billion in annual sales over the next decade. The message? You puny humans have no idea what is going to happen next.

These medicines work by blocking a signal that cancer cells use to tell white blood cells not to kill them. The two leaders in the class--Opdivo from Bristol-Myers Squibb and Keytruda from Merck--block PD-1, the signal sent out by the white blood cell. Imfinzi and Tecentriq, from Roche, block PD-L1. The expectation has been that these drugs are basically the same, yet Keytruda succeeded against metastatic non-small cell lung cancer while Opdivo failed, and on Wednesday Tecentriq failed in bladder cancer, while Keytruda extended survival.

In a note to investors this morning, Timothy Anderson of Sanford C. Bernstein lays out why today's news is important to AstraZeneca. His back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that this market could be worth $1.7 billion or more for Astra, with no competitors in site for years. What's more, this figure is not included in Wall Street's $30 billion forecasts. It means that there could be uses for these drugs that nobody is considering in their sales numbers. (The flip side of those sales numbers: these drugs all cost in the neighborhood of $150,000 a year.)

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