(Adds comment from Roche, analyst, background)
By John Miller
ZURICH, Oct 21 (Reuters) - Roche's Tecentriq mixed with Avastin helped liver cancer patients live longer, a boost to the Swiss drugmaker's strategy of expanding its late-to-the-game immunotherapy into niche areas not yet dominated by rivals.
Roche said on Monday it will submit overall and progression-free survival data in hepatocellular carcinoma to U.S., European and Chinese regulators in hopes of a speedy approval. The study compared Tecentriq and Avastin with sorafenib, the generic name for Bayer's Nexavar.
Tecentriq's revenue, while growing, pales in comparison to Keytruda from Merck and Opdivo from Bristol-Myers Squibb , doctors' go-to immunotherapies for lucrative areas such as non-small cell lung cancer.
But Roche's drug is gaining a foothold against smaller targets including triple-negative breast cancer, where it has a head start on its competitors.
The combination is "the first treatment in more than a decade to improve overall survival in people with unresectable hepatocellular carcinoma who have not received prior systemic therapy", said Levi Garraway, Roche's new chief medical officer, without disclosing the specific survival benefit for Tecentriq and Avastin.
Roche emphasised the importance of approval in China, where some studies show liver cancer's prevalence is higher than elsewhere and which may account for 50% of annual new cases globally.
Roche's Chinese sales have accelerated this year, rising more than 50% through the first three quarters and underpinning the company's move last week to lift its 2019 outlook again.
"This is an opportunity for Roche to continue its expansion in Asia, and especially in China," Zuercher Kantonalbank analyst Michael Nawrath said in a note to investors. (Reporting by John Miller; Editing by Michael Shields)