Cancer Drug, Avastin, Nears Approval

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Avastin, a drug given conditional FDA approval for the treatment of metastatic breast cancer last February, is now one step closer to becoming a fully approved breast cancer drug. And that’s good news for women with metastatic breast cancer: both because Avastin enhances the quality of a survivor’s life, and because FDA approval of this very expensive drug would make coverage under most health plans much more likely.

    Results of the so-called RIBBON 1 study, released early this week, indicate that Avastin, when used in combination with other specific chemotherapy drugs, extends “progression-free survival”—the time when a woman’s tumors stop growing—by an average of 5 1/2 months over chemo drugs given alone.

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    While Avastin hasn’t been shown to prolong life, stopping tumor growth can be a blessing. Imagine, if you’re struggling to live, the gift of 5 1/2 months of feeling good, time you might spend seeing a child grow, attending your son’s wedding, or simply enjoying each day. That’s the benefit of Avastin, when given in conjunction with chemo drugs Adriamycin, epirubicin, doxorubicin, Taxol, Taxotere, or Xeloda.

    Avastin, drug company Genentech’s best-selling product, produced $2.3 billion in sales for that company (and mother company Roche AG) in 2007. Full approval for Avastin is awaiting the results of one final trial.

     

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    Breaking news from a joint report of the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society, published online in The Journal of the National Cancer Institute Tuesday:

    For the first time ever, new cancer diagnoses are in a steady decline in the United States.

    The report tracks cancer diagnoses from 1999-2005, the last year for which results are available. During that time, cancer diagnosis rates decreased by an average of 0.8 percent annually. In addition, cancer deaths continued their 15-year slide, declining by an average of 1.8 percent each year from 2002 to 2005.

    Men’s lung cancer; and breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers are all showing improved survival rates. For men’s lung cancer, this is the result of a decline in tobacco use; while both men and women are smoking less, men began quitting earlier than women.

    The drop in death rates for breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers is due to better preventive measures, screening, and treatment, according to the report.

    Breast cancer diagnoses dropped an average of 2.2% per year between 2002 and 2005, with experts pointing to the precipitous decline in women using hormone replacement therapy (HRT) during that time. Results of the long-term Women's Health Initiative study, released in 2002, linked HRT use with an increased risk for breast cancer.

    Surprisingly, mammography rates have fluctuated during that same time period, with a lower percentage of women getting regular mammograms than in earlier timeframes examined. Ahmedin Jemal, strategic director for cancer surveillance at the American Cancer Society, notes in the report that the decline in diagnoses might be due in part to some breast cancers simply not being detected.


  • Samuel Epstein, a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, cautioned against unbridled optimism. Speaking to The Washington Post, Epstein said, “If you look at the overall picture, that really distorts and reduces the realization that there's been a steady increase of non-tobacco-related cancer." The report shows that non-Hodgkin lymphoma, kidney cancer, and melanoma—among others—are all on the rise.

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    But Dr. John E. Niederhuber, director of the National Cancer Institute, and Christine Eheman, chief of the cancer surveillance branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were more positive about the report’s findings.

    Quoted in The New York Times, Niederhuber noted, “Each year that you see these steady declines it gives you more confidence that we’re moving in the right direction.” Eheman, also interviewed by the Times, said, “I do think it’s a good sign, but I think we need to be very careful not to think we have this problem in any way beaten.”

Published On: November 25, 2008