Cancer Drug Prolongs Life in Study

Times Staff Writer

Genentech Inc. reported Saturday that its experimental drug Tarceva helped patients with advanced lung cancer live two months longer than patients on a placebo, providing the first evidence that a new class of medications can prolong lives.

The study was one of several released at a medical meeting here that offered promising news for people with lung cancer, a disease expected to kill 160,400 in the U.S. this year.

Two other studies presented at the annual conference of the American Society of Clinical Oncology showed that patients who had their tumors removed lived longer if they received chemotherapy after surgery. The two clinical trials had similar results even though different sets of chemotherapy drugs were used in the tests.


More than a quarter of the 174,000 Americans diagnosed with lung cancer each year are eligible for surgery.

In one trial, led by the National Cancer Institute of Canada and involving 482 patients, 69% of patients who received a 16-week course of chemotherapy after surgery were alive after five years, compared with 54% of patients who did not get the drugs. A trial of 344 patients led by Rhode Island Hospital in Providence had similar results.

“This will begin to shift the treatment paradigm,” said Frances Shepherd, cancer specialist at of Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. She was not involved in either study.

Genentech’s Tarceva was tested on patients with inoperable non-small cell lung cancer whose disease had not responded to at least one other treatment. The trial involved 730 patients; 490 received Tarceva, a once-daily pill, and the rest took a placebo.

Genentech, of South San Francisco, and its development partner, OSI Pharmaceuticals Inc. of New York, said patients who received Tarceva lived an average of 6.7 months, or 40% longer than patients on the placebo, who lived an average of 4.7 months. The companies had announced in April that they had seen good results in the trial, which was designed to show a 30% improvement in survival, but did not reveal the data until Saturday.

The drug belongs to a class that blocks what’s known as the epidermal growth factor, a protein that spurs tumor growth. Two approved drugs, Erbitux made by ImClone Systems Inc. and AstraZeneca’s Iressa, also block the EGF protein. But neither has shown that it can extend lives.


However, Tarceva did not outperform two chemotherapy drugs, Taxotere made by Aventis and Eli Lilly & Co.’s Alimta, each of which has added about seven months to patients’ lives when used in clinical trials as a second-line therapy. Physicians at the meeting Saturday said that all three drugs were a valid second treatment for patients.

“What this means is that patients have more options,” said Pasi Janne, a cancer specialist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Only Taxotere has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a second treatment in lung cancer. Alimta is approved for asbestos-related lung cancer and is awaiting FDA approval as a treatment for other lung cancers.