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In the latest twist in the immunotherapy market, Merck (MRK) disclosed that its Keytruda cancer medicine helped previously untreated lung cancer patients live longer than chemotherapy in a late-stage trial, which may solidify its position as the leading drug maker in this lucrative market.

Although full data was not reported and the trial will continue to evaluate whether Keytruda can delay lung cancer from progressing, the disclosure is potentially quite significant for Merck. The company is increasingly relying on its cancer portfolio for growth and Keytruda is already a dominant lung cancer treatment. Last year, the drug, which is approved to treat other cancers, notched $3.8 billion in sales.


Moreover, the announcement suggests that monotherapy may occupy a more prominent role in treating non-small cell lung cancer. Interestingly, the announcement comes as various drug makers test numerous combination therapies for lung cancer — and, indeed, for other cancers — in the belief that no one medication is likely to suffice for the largest possible number of patients.

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