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Johnson & Johnson, Bristol-Myers' Cancer Drugs Grab Spotlight


J&J's prostate cancer pill works well to slow cancer growth, though survival rates are still in question. Bristol-Myers has another drug that unleashes the immune system on cancer.

MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL Johnson & Johnson's (JNJ) Zytiga pill slows prostate cancer growth substantially in patients who haven't received chemotherapy, and Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY) has a drug that appears to effectively unleash the body's immune system against three types of cancers.

Those are two of the big headlines from ASCO, the American Society of Clinical Oncology's annual meeting in Chicago this past weekend. The two big pharmaceutical makers, benefiting from prior acquisitions of biotech firms, were among companies boasting breakthrough treatments at the meeting.

J&J's study results for Zytiga taken with a steroid drug drew a great deal of interest. Zytiga, already approved for men with prostate cancer who received chemo, would create far more demand if it is approved for a broader group of patients. The company plans to file thhis year for US clearance for the additional use of Zytiga. The drug's success in the trial also has positive implications for Medivation (MDVN), which is developing a similar treatment. Zytiga would pose a competitive threat to Dendreon (DNDN), maker of the prostate cancer vaccine Provenge.

The J&J drug potentially represents a new standard of care for patients, Dr. Charles Ryan, the lead investigator on the Zytiga study, told hundreds of oncologists, company execs and others packed into a theater to hear the presentation Saturday.

The drug slowed tumor growth and showed "a trend" toward extending patients' lives. There's still a nagging question whether the drug improves survival rates because the study was stopped early after researchers concluded the drug had met its goals for the clinical trial. Aside from the survival rate controversy, the data was strong enough that even competitors conceded it was impressive, including Dendreon's Chief Medical Officer Mark Frohlich.

Dendreon Provenge sales stalled last year, causing a number of investors to jump ship. But Frohlich says his company continues to push forward and he insists that patients will need multiple therapy options.

Medivation recently applied for US approval for its drug enzalutamide. A number of investors are betting that Medivation will win approval of that medicine and ultimately market the best-selling product among new prostate cancer treatments. The questions about survival rates among Zytiga study patients may help Medivation.

Overall, the competition has been good, Medivation's Vice President of Medical Affairs Hank Mansbach says. Prostate cancer has been "one of the most active places where things are changing rapidly," he says.

Bristol-Myers gave hope to proponents of immunotherapies -- treatments aimed at bolstering a patient's immune system against cancer.

The caveat for the Bristol-Myers breakthrough is that the company presented early-stage data for its experimental drug, a so-called anti-PD-1 immunotherapy. In the company study, the drug showed promise as a second-line treatment for lung cancer and for metastatic melanoma and kidney cancer.

Like Bristol-Myers' melanoma drug Yervoy (approved in the US last year), the company's PD-1 drug was acquired through the 2009 takeover of biotech company Medarex. J&J's Zytiga was acquired through its own 2009 purchase of Cougar Biotechnology.

Leerink Swann analyst Seamus Fernandez calls Bristol-Myers' experimental drug a potential game changer for the company.

"The (Bristol-Myers) data is a much needed boost for the field of cancer immunotherapy," says biotechnology industry consultant Michael Becker.

Twitter: @brettchase

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