Merck & Co., Inc. Reinvigorates R&D With Emphasis On Cancer Immunotherapy

Merck's aggressive plan will likely spur competitors Roche and Bristol-Myers Squibb

Jan 17, 2014 at 6:30PM

Troubled Merck (NYSE:MRK) has been revamping its R&D strategy since the latter part of last year. In the midst of cuts, establishing new global innovation hubs, and narrowing its R&D interests , Merck is throwing its force behind its cancer immunotherapy potential with an experimental drug called MK-3475.

The backstory

The cancer immunotherapy field has been centered around PD-1, a novel target in malignancies that allow cancer cells to be marked and unmasked for a patient's own immune system to destroy. Roche's (NASDAQOTH:RHHBY) MPDL3280A, targeting the PD-1 ligand PD-L1, also recently posted impressive responses in non-small cell lung cancer in the latter part of last year. It was Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE:BMY), however that jump-started the field with nivolumab for melanoma and then later for non-small cell lung cancer.

Merck has been excited about MK-3475, or lambrolizumab, for some time. The drug was given the breakthrough therapy designation by the FDA after an early stage study of over 1000 patients was released. It has long been known that Merck was closely eyeing MK-3475 as a potential blockbuster, and now the R&D restructuring certainly reflects that.

Merck R&D Chief Roger Perlmutter announced a plan and allocation of resources to launch a submission to the FDA in the first half of 2014 . Currently the drug is in three studies for melanoma, one of which is a late-stage study comparing it to current therapy ipilimumab .

Meanwhile, Roche and Bristol-Myers are unlikely to take this announcement lying down. Bristol Myers-Squibb expects to file a new drug application for nivolumab this year, and has shown even better responses in the combination of nivolumab and Yervoy, a combination that in itself could be a blockbuster for the company .

While this will certainly reinvigorate the race between Merck, Roche, and Bristol-Myers Squibb for the first PD-1 cancer therapy, the signal it sends on Merck's R&D is perhaps more important. In a 7 year blockbuster drought, the company has long been criticized for failing to get drugs through late-stage trials and on to the market. .

Estimates for the drugs are all quite impressive. Experts predict that 50% of cancer treatments in the next decade will involve immunotherapy. Of the current top three drugs, FierceBiotech reported that analysts expect $4 billion for Bristol-Myers' nivolumab, $3.5 billion for Roche's MPDL3280A and $3 billion for Merck's MK-3475 .

With billions of dollars of the line, Merck's aggressive move may force Roche and Bristol-Myers to do the same. For Merck, however, the breakthrough designation achieved late last year for MK-3475 as well as this 'fast track' focus will hopefully help investors regain confidence in Merck's pipeline.

The Motley Fool's Top Stock Pick for 2014
There's a huge difference between a good stock, and a stock that can make you rich. The Motley Fool's chief investment officer has selected his No. 1 stock for 2014, and it's one of those stocks that could make you rich. You can find out which stock it is in the special free report: "The Motley Fool's Top Stock for 2014." Just click here to access the report and find out the name of this under-the-radar company.

Fool contributor Amy Ho has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Money to your ears - A great FREE investing resource for you

The best way to get your regular dose of market and money insights is our suite of free podcasts ... what we like to think of as “binge-worthy finance.”

Feb 1, 2016 at 5:03PM

Whether we're in the midst of earnings season or riding out the market's lulls, you want to know the best strategies for your money.

And you'll want to go beyond the hype of screaming TV personalities, fear-mongering ads, and "analysis" from people who might have your email address ... but no track record of success.

In short, you want a voice of reason you can count on.

A 2015 Business Insider article titled, "11 websites to bookmark if you want to get rich," rated The Motley Fool as the #1 place online to get smarter about investing.

And one of the easiest, most enjoyable, most valuable ways to get your regular dose of market and money insights is our suite of free podcasts ... what we like to think of as "binge-worthy finance."

Whether you make it part of your daily commute or you save up and listen to a handful of episodes for your 50-mile bike rides or long soaks in a bubble bath (or both!), the podcasts make sense of your money.

And unlike so many who want to make the subjects of personal finance and investing complicated and scary, our podcasts are clear, insightful, and (yes, it's true) fun.

Our free suite of podcasts

Motley Fool Money features a team of our analysts discussing the week's top business and investing stories, interviews, and an inside look at the stocks on our radar. The show is also heard weekly on dozens of radio stations across the country.

The hosts of Motley Fool Answers challenge the conventional wisdom on life's biggest financial issues to reveal what you really need to know to make smart money moves.

David Gardner, co-founder of The Motley Fool, is among the most respected and trusted sources on investing. And he's the host of Rule Breaker Investing, in which he shares his insights into today's most innovative and disruptive companies ... and how to profit from them.

Market Foolery is our daily look at stocks in the news, as well as the top business and investing stories.

And Industry Focus offers a deeper dive into a specific industry and the stories making headlines. Healthcare, technology, energy, consumer goods, and other industries take turns in the spotlight.

They're all informative, entertaining, and eminently listenable. Rule Breaker Investing and Answers are timeless, so it's worth going back to and listening from the very start; the other three are focused more on today's events, so listen to the most recent first.

All are available for free at

If you're looking for a friendly voice ... with great advice on how to make the most of your money ... from a business with a lengthy track record of success ... in clear, compelling language ... I encourage you to give a listen to our free podcasts.

Head to, give them a spin, and you can subscribe there (at iTunes, Stitcher, or our other partners) if you want to receive them regularly.

It's money to your ears.


Compare Brokers