(Bloomberg) -- Lung-cancer patients who took Roche Holding AG’s new medicine Tecentriq lived about four months longer than those on chemotherapy in a study that will help position the drug to compete in the increasingly crowded field of immunotherapy. 

People who got Tecentriq lived an average of just under 14 months, compared with almost 10 months for those on docetaxel chemotherapy, the Swiss drugmaker said Sunday at a meeting of the European Society for Medical Oncology in Copenhagen. Patients in the study -- most of whom were men, and had a history of smoking -- had already tried at least one other therapy unsuccessfully.

Roche’s results come amid intense interest in medicines that harness the immune system to help fight lung cancer. Tecentriq would compete with recently-approved treatments from Merck & Co. and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. Both U.S. drugmakers just finished trials in a much bigger group of patients: those who are treated for the first time. Bristol’s drug failed and Merck’s succeeded in results presented alongside Roche’s at the conference on Sunday.

Importantly, Tecentriq also helped patients whose immune systems didn’t already show a strong response before treatment, said Dan Chen, the Swiss drugmaker’s head of cancer immunotherapy development. Patients who already had a strong immunity responded even better to the drug, Chen said. They lived a median of more than 20 months, compared with a 8.9 months for those on chemotherapy, in the Roche-funded study.

“The survival benefit that we’re seeing here is unprecedented,” Chen said in a telephone interview. “This forms the foundation of our cancer immunotherapy development. Tecentriq will be used as a single agent but also in combination in the future.”

Tecentriq was approved in May for advanced bladder cancer, and Roche expects a ruling from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in lung cancer by the middle of next week. The drug may have about 2.15 billion francs ($2.19 billion) in sales in 2019, according to analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

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To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chitra Somayaji at, Marthe Fourcade, Christopher Elser

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