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Merck (MRK) has a done a lot right in cancer immunotherapy, probably more than any of its pharma rivals. But the clinical debut of a new immune-boosting drug from its early-stage cancer pipeline Saturday suggests Merck is not heeding a hard lesson learned from its biggest blunder.

The new Merck drug, called MK-1454, shows no evidence that it can kill cancer cells when injected into patients on its own, as a monotherapy. But when MK-1454 was used in combination with Merck’s checkpoint inhibitor Keytruda, the tumors in a small number of patients got smaller.


Eric Rubin, a Merck scientist in charge of the company’s early-stage cancer drug pipeline, says the preliminary data from this Phase 1 study of MK-1454 are “encouraging” and support further clinical development, particularly in combination with Keytruda.

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