Merck Staring Down Patent Cliff of Its Lucrative Cancer Wonder Drug

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Merck is looking for a miracle. Well, another one.

The pharma company’s patent for its wildly successful “miracle” cancer drug Keytruda is up in 2028 — and a hefty share of its revenues could disappear alongside the exclusivity. On Wednesday, word came that the company is now looking to patch the hole in its future balance sheet by going shopping.

I Want a New Drug

Since it was first approved in 2014, Keytruda has emerged as a wonder drug, increasing the odds of survival for patients with over a dozen types of cancer. It also turned Merck into a juggernaut, with the company earning a third of its $48 billion in revenue from the drug last year. But Merck’s stock has flatlined and investors have grown nervous over its dependence on Keytruda, which is expected to account for over 50% of revenue by the time the patent expires.

At least Merck has seven years to figure something out, right? Nope. It takes an average of ten years to bring a new drug from discovery to market. That may be why Merck is looking to buy itself out of the problem:

  • Merck is considering acquiring Mirati Therapeutics, an $8 billion biotech firm focused on clinical-stage lung cancer treatments, according to the Financial Times.
  • It’s also eyeing Strand Therapeutics, which develops mRNA treatments for cancer, and Arcturus Therapeutics, which is using the technology against cystic fibrosis. Last week, it bought biotech Acceleron Pharma for $11.5 billion.

But acquiring firms with pharmaceuticals in development is still no guarantee: only about one in eight drugs that make it to clinical trials are even approved.

Going Antiviral: After previously failing to launch any Covid-19 treatments like major rivals, Merck last week announced that its antiviral pill, Molnupiravir, cut death and hospitalization from the virus in half during trials. Investment bank SVB Leerink estimates it could make $12 billion by 2025.

Pill Pushing: That pill alone won’t make up for Merck’s future losses, but clinging to the vestiges of its flagship product might. Merck has filed a whopping 129 patents linked to Keytruda in an effort to extend its exclusive rights to 2036.

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