(Repeats story with new headline)
* Targeted drugs take center stage at cancer meeting
* Cancer drugs lead pharmaceutical industry growth
By Deena Beasley
CHICAGO, June 8 In the future fight against
cancer, doctors are looking beyond afflicted organs -- whether
lung, brain or stomach -- and finding new answers by disrupting
the genetic mechanisms of specific tumor cells.
Novel cancer drugs at the center of a major medical meeting
this week point to a future in which patients are more
routinely tested for gene mutations underlying their cancer to
match them with a targeted treatment.
That would represent a major shift from the current medical
paradigm, in which a patient's disease is more closely
identified with an area of the body to determine what battery
of chemotherapy or other one-size-fits-all regimen is needed.
"We are not waging a single war against a single enemy,"
said Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer
Institute. "It is literally hundreds of different diseases ...
in every domain of cancer there is a puzzle to be figured
Advances in genetic sequencing are helping scientists to
solve some of those puzzles, and the number of experimental
compounds has mushroomed. New data on several targeted drugs
released this week at the annual meeting of the American
Society of Clinical Oncology showed the progress made in making
this mode of treatment a reality after many years of research.
For full ASCO coverage, see: [ID:nN05141382]
"We have proof of principle in some tumors where we have
identified a target ... we can actually make an enormous
difference in the outcome," said ASCO President Dr. Michael
In one of the most talked-about studies, advanced melanoma
patients given an experimental pill, vemurafenib, developed by
Roche ROG.VX and Daiichi Sankyo (4568.T) were 63 percent less
likely to die than patients given chemotherapy.
Vemurafenib is designed for use in patients with tumors
that have a mutation in a gene known as BRAF that allows
melanoma cells to grow. About half of all melanomas have the
genetic aberration. [ID:nN01212836]
"This agent is producing responses that have really been
unheard of with chemotherapy," said Sandra Horning, head of
global development for oncology at the Roche's Genentech unit.
She declined to talk about market expectations for the
drug, but did say Roche would launch it with a companion test
for diagnosing the BRAF mutation.
Another study presented at ASCO found that matching
therapies, most still experimental, to the genetic markers led
to higher rates of tumor shrinkage and survival for patients
with advanced cancer. [ID:nN03172844]
And while there is still a high correlation between genetic
mutations and specific types of cancer as we know them,
researchers are also finding links between the different
categories, opening up new possibilities for treatment.
"What we are finding out is that the molecular
abnormalities cross tumor types," said Dr. Razelle Kurzrock,
professor and chair of MD Anderson's Department of
Investigational Cancer Therapeutics, which conducted the
CANCER DRUG SALES LEAD INDUSTRY GROWTH
Unlike traditional chemotherapy drugs, which work by
interfering with the entire body's system of cell replication,
newer targeted drugs aim to block specific pathways that cancer
cells use to grow and reproduce. The targeted therapies ideally
cause fewer harsh side effects, but they also work only in
patients with the specific gene mutation.
Cancer drug sales -- which doubled between 2005 and 2010 --
are expected to continue leading pharmaceutical industry
growth. The sector will grow 8 percent a year, reaching $93
billion in 2016, according to Natixis. Much of that growth is
expected to come from such targeted therapies, which have
already revolutionized the treatment of a few specific cancers,
such as leukemia, certain stomach tumors and a subset of breast
Close to 900 more cancer medicines are currently being
tested in humans, according to the NCI.
But the new drugs are also expensive, with a course of
treatment typically priced at tens of thousands of dollars.
"The cost issue is tremendously important," said said Dr.
Robert Burger, director of Fox Chase's Women's Cancer Center in
Philadelphia. "The political lobby, the pharma industry, and
healthcare insurance providers need to sit down and figure out
how to make these types of treatments more affordable."
Also fueling the cost issue, major drugmakers are looking
at ways to combine targeted therapies. They say it will lead to
an even more effective treatment by blocking multiple pathways
needed by cancer cells.
The combination of two experimental pills developed by
GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK.L) -- one BRAF-blocker and another
designed to inhibit a gene known as MEK -- were shown in an
early-stage trial to shrink tumors in a majority of patients
with advanced melanoma. Roche has teamed with Bristol-Myers
Squibb (BMY.N) to test vemurafenib in combination with
Bristol's ipilimumab, an antibody designed to spur the body's
immune system to fight off the cancer.
Since most tumors eventually find a way to get around
blocked pathways, "there is widespread understanding that we
are going to need to learn how to combine two or more targeted
therapies to block the main road and the side road and the dirt
road," said ASCO Chief Executive Dr. Allen Lichter.
(Additional reporting by Debra Sherman; Editing by Steve