Merck & Co., Inc. (MRK), Illumina, Inc. (ILMN), GlaxoSmithKline plc (ADR) (GSK): The U.S.’s Deadliest Diseases

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Merck & Co., Inc. (NYSE:MRK)There’s good news and bad news for Americans. The good news is that the age-adjusted death rate in the U.S. is lower than it’s ever been. What’s the bad news? The same diseases still kill too many Americans year after year. But progress is being made. Here are the three deadliest diseases in the U.S. — and what encouraging developments are at hand.

1. Heart disease
Heart disease causes nearly 600,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Almost two-thirds of that total results from coronary heart disease, which stems from narrowing and blockage of the arteries by deposits of cholesterol and other substances.

Mortality rates for heart disease have been decreasing relatively steadily since 1980. Availability of medications to help individuals control cholesterol levels has no doubt played a major role in this improvement. Now, a new cholesterol drug that could be one of the most effective ever will be available.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Merck & Co., Inc. (NYSE:MRK)’s Liptruzet. The drug actually is a combination of two already-approved cholesterol medications — Lipitor from Pfizer Inc. (NYSE:PFE) and Merck & Co., Inc. (NYSE:MRK)’s Zetia. In clinical studies, Liptruzet was found to reduce “bad” cholesterol by as much as 61%, significantly better than either of its two component drugs.

This should be great news for patients who have trouble keeping cholesterol levels in check taking one of the currently available medications. And with improvements like this in cholesterol drugs and in other areas, those high numbers of deaths related to heart disease will hopefully keep on falling.

2. Cancer
Cancer continues to be one of the scariest words for too many Americans. Around 575,000 deaths each year across the U.S. result from various forms of cancer.

Several positives leap out when we look at cancer statistics, though. Cancer-related mortality rates have declined since the early 1990s. While prostate cancer and breast cancer rank at the top of the list when it comes to new diagnoses, many more people now survive battles with these forms of cancer.

Lung cancer, though it ranks third in new cases, stands as the leading cancer-related cause of death and kills more Americans than the next three types of cancer combined. This is discouraging, but there are some breakthroughs making a difference.

Several new drugs are now available that fight lung cancer, including Xalkori from Pfizer Inc. (NYSE:PFE). Clinical studies for Xalkori showed progression-free survival rates twice as high as those with standard therapies. However, perhaps even better news for the fight against lung cancer comes from technology used in the development of Xalkori and other cancer drugs.

Drugs like Xalkori reached the market in around half the time that most take to do so in part through the use of genetic screening. Next-generation sequencing technology from Illumina, Inc. (NASDAQ:ILMN) and others now enables researchers to quickly sequence DNA. This speeds up drug development by helping companies target drugs for specific gene mutations and shortening the amount of time required to enroll patients. With more effective treatments reaching the market sooner, more lives could potentially be saved.

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