WASHINGTON Shark cartilage, once a hopeful-seeming new approach in cancer treatment, failed to help lung cancer patients live any longer, researchers said on Saturday.
Shark cartilage products have been marketed for years as "alternative" products by several firms, and one Canadian company, Aeterna Zentaris Inc., had been developing one such product as a licensed pharmaceutical.
But the large study, sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, showed definitively that the product did not work, experts told a meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago.
The study fits in with several others that have been published in recent years showing that various shark cartilage products do not help cancer patients live any longer, or help ease their symptoms.
"I would like to hope, I would like to pray, that this would put this sort of therapy out of business," Dr. Nancy Davidson, an oncologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who is about to become president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, said in an interview.
Aeterna Zentaris said in March it had dropped development of its shark cartilage product, Neovastat.
Dr. Charles Lu and colleagues at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston tested 379 lung cancer patients who either drank Neovastat or a product that tasted just like it.
"It is a standard extract of cartilage," Lu said in a telephone interview. Patients would defrost it, drink it at home daily. They did this for more than three years.
Everyone also got standard lung cancer chemotherapy and radiation. The patients had stage 3 lung cancer, which has spread extensively inside the lungs and which usually cannot be treated with surgery.
But the group that got the shark cartilage did not live any longer than the patients given placebo drinks -- a median of 14.4 months for those who got Neovastat versus 15.6 months for those who got placebo.
"It is not a significant difference," Lu said.
He said the finding will be useful for many people.
Last year, lung cancer was diagnosed in more than 174,000 Americans and killed more than 160,000. It kills 1.3 million people globally every year.
"Many people were taking over-the-counter shark cartilage products," Lu said.
"Many people look at this askance as alternative medicine. I can tell you the company did not," he added.
The National Cancer Institute decided to evaluate the product apart from the company, and Lu said now patients have some firm data to help them decide what to do.
"These patients are a vulnerable population. They are thinking, 'My life is limited. What can I do?' They are not going to have time to do a lot of research before they spend their money."