June 4th, 2008
03:12 PM ET

New developments in the war on cancer

By Miriam Falco
CNN Medical Managing Editor

There's been a lot of news about cancer this week.  Specifically, one of the deadliest, brain cancer.  Sen. Ted Kennedy is fighting it.  Fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent died after battling it for a year.  This news overshadowed some important advances in cancer research presented at the largest cancer conference in the world.  Every year physicians, researchers, pharmaceutical companies and journalists gather for the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncologists (ASCO). This year more than 33,000 people attended the 44th annual conference.  There's always an expectation of a big, blockbuster report that will make a huge impact on cancer patients. 

This year researchers presented more than 5,000 studies - some small or preliminary, others significantly advancing patient care.  ASCO president and breast cancer specialist Dr. Nancy Davidson points out that, "Today, there are more than 10 million cancer survivors (in the United States) compared to 3 million in the 1970s."

Here's a brief round-up (in no particular order) of some of the findings that caught my eye at this year's conference:

 –      A drug approved for osteoporosis called Zometa not only helped reduce bone loss in premenopausal breast cancer survivors, it also helped reduce the risk of relapse by a third.  It's too early to say whether these women will live longer, but researchers saw these benefits without going on chemotherapy.

–       Doctors can use a test that costs about $100 to determine whether the drug Erbitux will help prevent the spread of colon cancer.  Researchers found Erbitiux did not work with tumor cells that have a mutated form of a certain protein.  However, if the patient's tumor had a normal version of the protein, taking Erbitux plus regular chemotherapy reduced his or her risk of recurring cancer by 32 percent.

This is important because  it helps doctors determine who will benefit from this drug.  It saves patients from wasting time on a drug that won't work for them, avoids their dealing with any side effects that can occur and saves a lot of money because this relative new drug is very expensive ($8,000 for 4 dosages; patients usually need 12). 

–       Researchers also found that adding this same colon cancer drug Erbitux to standard chemotherapy in non-small cell lung cancer patients, compared with those on only standard chemotherapy extends survival by a month.  One month more may not seem like a lot, and the researchers themselves call it "a small step forward that opens up new avenues in research."  But it shows that this drug, which targets a specific characteristic of the tumor, has a survival benefit. That's important to patients and their families and represents another step forward in treating the No. 1 cancer killer in the world.

This is not a comprehensive synopsis of the meeting, and several experts I spoke with wouldn't call these "home run" findings – more like somewhere between a single and a double (their analogy, not mine).  But researchers are learning more about what's going on inside a tumor and finding ways to stop cancer from spreading.  That's good news for the more than 1.4 million Americans who will develop cancer this year.  But fighting cancer depends on having the resources to conduct more research.  Another theme of this conference was lack of research dollars.  Davidson, the oncology group's president, says National Institutes of Health funding declined by $500 million since 2003.  The National Cancer Institute’s director Dr. John Niederhuber told reporters, "We're supporting fewer clinical trials."

That's because the NIH budget has been flat since 2004 – add in inflation – and the actual money is less. Less money means less research.  Do you think the U.S. government needs to spend more on cancer research?  If so, at what cost to other health initiatives?

For more information on these studies and information on cancer, you can go to ASCO's newly launched website http://www.cancer.net.  The American Cancer Society, at www.cancer.org, also has a lot helpful information for you. 

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