Thalidomide helps elderly cancer patients: study

LONDON (Reuters) - Elderly patients with an aggressive form of blood cancer lived about 20 months longer when given the drug thalidomide as part of their treatment, French researchers said on Friday.

The drug also slowed the spread of myeloma, a disease that accounts for about 1-2 percent of all cancers, usually affects older people, and kills its victims within three years, they reported in the Lancet medical journal.

“The main message is the addition of thalidomide is able to improve survival,” Thierry Facon, a specialist in blood diseases at Lille University in France who led the study, told Reuters.

The standard treatment, established 40 years ago, is a combination chemotherapy of two drugs called melphalan and prednisone. In recent years, some patients have also received bone marrow treatment that has boosted survival, Facon said.

But bone marrow transplants are too harsh for frail, elderly patients, so researchers turned to thalidomide, a drug used to fight nausea in pregnant women in the 1950s and 60s until doctors found it caused limb deformity in unborn children.

Once shunned, thalidomide is now considered a cancer fighter, with scientists testing it on lung, blood and brain cancers. It has also been approved to treat leprosy.

Facon and his colleagues analyzed 447 untreated patients aged 65 to 75, giving some the standard drugs and adding thalidomide into the mix for others.

They used Pharmion’s Thalidomide, currently under review by European regulators for treating multiple myeloma, Facon said. Celgene sells the drug in the United States under the brand name Thalomid.

In a follow-up nearly six years later, the researchers found those who received thalidomide lived on average nearly 52 months, versus 33 months for those on standard therapy.

Progression-free survival -- the time it takes before the disease worsens -- also improved by about 10 months.

“After 50 years of unsuccessful attempts to find new and more effective treatment approaches... we now have extensive evidence to support the introduction of (thalidomide) as the standard of care for elderly patients with multiple myeloma,” Antonio Palumbo and Mario Boccadoro of the University of Torino, wrote in a Lancet commentary.