June 7th, 2010
05:01 PM ET
By Miriam Falco
Since Saturday, about 30,000 of the world’s top cancer experts have been in Chicago for the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncologists, the largest conference of the year on cancer care and treatment. Researchers are presenting more than 4,000 different studies – some very small and preliminary; some large and probably practice-changing. Here a few that could have an impact on how patients will be treated in the future.
Lung cancer: Researchers have found that patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer may benefit from a new experimental drug if their tumors have a specific chromosome re-arrangement.
The drug is called Crizotinib, and it targets the genetic alteration of the so-called “ALK” gene in a cancer cell. About 5 percent of lung cancer patients have this genetic malfunction and most of them are former smokers or never smoked at all according to ASCO.
Early research found that patients with this genetic alteration benefited from Crizotonib. If larger studies validate these early results, 10,000 lung cancer patients could be helped with this drug, says Dr. Mark Kris, the cchief of thoracic oncology at Memorial-Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York and an ASCO spokesman.
“People with lung cancer need hope,” Kris says, because there is very little for them when the cancer is advanced. He says what’s exciting about this research is that doctors can test for this mutation. If their patients have it, the drug will work. If the they don’t have this particular mutation, they can be spared the cost of the drug and more importantly not waste time trying to drug that won’t help them.
Breast cancer: A new drug made from a sea sponge (called Halichondria okadai) may help women with advanced breast cancer who have already undergone multiple treatments.
According to the Dr. Christopher Twelves, lead author of the study, 50 percent of women with breast cancer will have their cancer come back or spread, and for them, there’s no good cure.
This new chemo drug was found to extend median overall survival of women by two and a half months compared with other possible treatments. Twelves says Eribulin is the only single drug therapy to show overall survival in these “heavily pretreated” women with breast cancer that has spread (compared with all the existing chemotherapy, hormone or endocrine treatments) and therefore may become the recommended treatment for these patients.
ASCO president and breast cancer expert Dr. Douglas Blaney believes this new chemotherapy drug could become the standard treatment for any woman with advanced breast cancer.
Melanoma (skin cancer): A new drug that helps melanoma patients live longer by enlisting their own immune system in the cancer battle.
According to the American Cancer Society, melanoma accounts for only 5 percent of skin cancers, but it causes the majority of skin cancer deaths. Once the cancer has spread, patients have few treatment options.
Now a new drug called ipilimumab causes the patients immune system to fight the cancer by telling the white blood cells called T-cells in the body to attack the cancer rather than giving the patient a drug that attacks tumors. Patients given this new drug had improved survival by almost four months.
Dr. Steven O’Day, who presented the research at ASCO, says no prior large randomized trial in melanoma has been able to demonstrate an improved survival in this type of cancer.
In patients who were given ipilimumab the average survival improvement was almost four months, which O’Day calls “highly significant.” “This important because this is a disease where the average survival in these patients is six to nine months, so to increase on average the survival by an additional four months is a very large difference.”
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