Roche and Astra face tussle over lung cancer pills

* Roche to test Tarceva in EGFR-mutant lung cancer patients

* Move comes day after EU recommendation for Astra’s Iressa

* Both drugs targeted therapies, alternative to chemotherapy

LONDON, April 24 (Reuters) - Roche Holding AG ROG.VX is to test if its Tarceva lung cancer pill works better in some patients with mutant genes, paving the way for a battle with AstraZeneca Plc's AZN.L rival drug, Iressa, in Europe.

Roche said on Friday it was working with the Spanish Lung Cancer Group on a Phase III trial to investigate Tarceva as a first-line treatment in lung cancer patients with genetic mutations in their epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR).

The move comes a day after AstraZeneca won a recommendation from European regulators for Iressa to be used in the same patient group, signalling a comeback for a medicine that had been largely written off by analysts. [ID:nLN203234]

Epidermal growth factor receptor, or EGFR, is a molecule tumours use to grow themselves blood supplies.

Tarceva, unlike Iressa, has been shown to benefit all patients, whether or not they have a mutant version of EGFR. But both drugs work particularly well in tumours with mutations, suggesting that in future doctors may use them as starting treatment in this sub-group.

The new Roche trial will evaluate whether Tarceva is a superior option for initial treatment of lung cancer patients with EGFR mutation positive disease than chemotherapy.

A mutation in the EGFR molecule is a characteristic occurring in 10 percent to 15 percent of lung cancers in Europe, and around one in three tumours in Asia.

Iressa, a once-daily pill, is not yet approved in Europe but is sold in Asia, where it generated sales of around $250 million last year. Tarceva, originally developed by OSI Pharmaceuticals Inc OSIP.O, has been approved in Europe since 2005 as a treatment for non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), the most common form of the disease.

Analysts at Deutsche Bank said Iressa would build up sales on the back of European approval, but Iressa was likely to be a niche product, with sales forecast to reach $474 million, or 2 percent of group sales, in 2014.

“We don’t doubt that Iressa will find its place in the treatment of NSCLC but see little risk to the Tarceva franchise,” said Deutsche analyst Michael Leuchten.

“The two treatments are remarkably similar and entering a carved up market without knock-out data is challenging.”

Editing by Simon Jessop