Merck shares ticked up on Wednesday evening after US drug regulators cleared the use of its immunotherapy drug Keytruda in combination with chemotherapy for lung cancer patients.

The US pharmaceutical company’s shares rose more than 3 per cent in after-hours trading following its announcement of the US Food and Drug Administration’s green-light for the cocktail of drugs under its “accelerated approval” programme, which allows new treatments to be given to patients on the basis of small clinical trials pending the results of larger studies.

Dr. Roger Perlmutter, president of Merck Research Laboratories, said:

“The improved responses seen with the Keytruda plus pemetrexed/carboplatin regimen are significant, and highlight the importance of finding new approaches that address the unmet needs of patients with metastatic nonsquamous non-small cell lung cancer. Today’s approval further supports our commitment to improve the lives of people with cancer.”

Rival drugmaker Bristol-Myers Squibb had been hoping to be the first company to bring a combination for lung cancer to the market by pairing its immunotherapy Opdivo with one of its older drugs. But earlier this year it told investors it had given up hope of securing expedited approval for the cocktail.

Total sales of Keytruda reached $1.4bn in 2016, more than double the $566m from a year earlier, according to regulatory filings. US sales of Keytruda jumped to roughly $260m in the first two months of 2017, an 80 per cent increase from the same period a year earlier, according to IMS, a data provider that tracks medicine sales.

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