Targeted Drugs, Lung CT Screening Top Cancer Advances in
TUESDAY, Dec. 6 (HealthDay News) -- As the war against cancer
continues, a group representing U.S. oncologists has picked its
"Top Five" list of advances in cancer care for 2011.
Leading the list are approvals for a bevy of new, targeted drugs
for tough-to-treat malignancies, plus promising results suggesting
CT chest scans may be an early-detection screen for lung
The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) this week
issued its annual report on progress against cancer. The report was
published online Dec. 5 in the
Journal of Clinical Oncology.
"The big news has been targeted drug therapy," noted Dr. Nicholas Vogelzang, head of the section of genitourinary cancer at the Nevada Cancer Institute in Las Vegas and co-executive editor of the report.
"We now have drugs that are very selective for some solid tumors. We now have [new] drugs affecting melanoma and lung cancer, which is pretty sweet," he said. "We don't know how long the responses to these drugs last -- they appear to be pretty short -- but some of them are truly dramatic."
CT-based lung cancer screening was the other big news in the
cancer field this past year, Vogelzang noted. "People who smoke
have a huge increase in lung cancer -- 40 times that of the general
population. If you stop the risk drops, but it never goes back to
However, a widely reported study published earlier this year by
the U.S. National Cancer Institute found that screening smokers and
former smokers with a CT chest scan was "dramatically better than
the chest X-ray," Vogelzang said.
According to experts at ASCO, this year's top five advances
- A trial of the drug vemurafenib (Zelboraf), which targets a key
gene mutation in melanoma. The study found improved survival in
patients with advanced melanoma compared with standard
- A screening trial of more than 50,000 current and former heavy
smokers found that three yearly low-dose CT scans reduced the death
risk from lung cancer by 20 percent compared with people screened
with three annual chest X-rays. Some experts have said that more
study may be needed before recommending regular CT screening for
all smokers, however, pointing to factors such as cost and high
rates of false-positive results.
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted approval to
crizotinib (Xalkori) for patients with advanced non-small-cell lung
cancer who have a specific gene mutation. In one study, 50 percent
of patients talking the medication saw their tumors shrink
completely or partially for an average of 10 months. Another study
found a 61 percent response rate that lasted an average of 12
- The FDA also approved ipilimumab (Yervoy) for patients with
previously untreated metastatic melanoma. The drug works by
activating the patient's immune response. The trial showed that
when combined with standard chemotherapy using dacarbazine, Yervoy
extended life by two months.
- Finally, there was the first conclusive evidence that
exemestane (Aromasin) a so-called aromatase inhibitor, reduced the
risk of developing breast cancer, making it a preventative
treatment option for postmenopausal women at high risk for breast
According to Vogelzang, the take-home message for patients is
that, "cancer therapy continues to get better and better each year.
Side effects are reducing. The old story of chemotherapy is going
away -- this is no longer your grandfather's Buick -- these are
pills that make cancer a truly manageable disease, much like
Other topics in the report include: Ways to deal with
troublesome, ongoing shortages of certain chemotherapy drugs, and
the impact of health care reform might have in addressing
disparities in cancer care.
In addition, the report looked at ways to improve clinical
cancer research in the United States.
The report was developed by an 18-member editorial board made up
of leading oncologists. Only studies that significantly changed the
way a cancer is understood or had a major impact on patient care
were chosen for the report, Vogelzang noted.
Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the
American Cancer Society, agreed that "we are moving into a new era
of [cancer] drug development."
He explained that a better understanding the genetics of a
particular cancer now makes it possible to develop medicines that
target a key part of the tumor cell, making therapies more specific
"For example, in melanoma we are still using the same drug today that I used back in 1972," Lichtenfeld said. However, the advent of new drugs is starting to change that, he added.
"The extension of life may be modest, [but] we need to appreciate that they are real," Lichtenfeld said. "Ten years ago we started talking about making cancer a 'chronic disease' and we are starting to see that happen."
There's much more on cancer at the
U.S. National Cancer
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