The cancer drug Erbitux prolonged the lives of patients with advanced lung cancer by five weeks, according to a new clinical study described as an important gain for such individuals.
"Patients with advanced NSCLC (non-small cell lung cancer) have limited treatment options and life expectancy is short, so the survival increase shown in this study is an important step for these patients," said Robert Pirker of the Medical University of Vienna, a lead investigator in the study.
Lung cancer patients typically have a 30 percent chance of living a year and a one to two percent chance of surviving five years, Pirker explained Sunday at the 44th annual conference of the American College of Clinical Oncology.
"It's a very moderate gain, but it's a positive step in the world's number one cause of cancer death," said Roy Herbst of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, who was not a participant in the study.
Erbitux is currently approved for treating colorectal cancer and cancers of the neck and head. It was developed by US firm ImClone Systems and sold in partnership with Bristol-Myers Squibb in the United States, and by Germany's Merck elsewhere in the world.
The clinical trial financed by Merck involved 1,125 patients in 30 countries with lung cancer that had already metastasized, or spread to other parts of the body.
Patients treated with Erbitux combined with chemotherapy lived a median 11.3 months, compared to 10.1 months for a control group given just chemotherapy.
Pirker called the results statistically significant and said, "The results clearly establish cetuximab in combination with chemotherapy as a new standard in first-line treatment of NSCLC."
The results varied depending on the ethnicity of the recipient. Asians had seen a net gain of two months, or double the increased life expectancy of Caucasians, Pirker said.
Erbitux could potentially compete with Avastine of the US firm Genentech as a treatment option. An initial trial of the latter drug showed a median gain in life expectancy of two months in patients with advanced stage cancer.
A second Avastine trial did not confirm those results, however, but showed the drug having no effect.
Lung cancer is one of the most common and deadly forms of the disease. There will be 215,000 new cases in the United States in 2008 -- 15 percent of all US cancers -- and 161,849 will die from lung cancer, accounting for 28.6 percent of all cancer deaths, according to the American Cancer Society.
Worldwide, 1.3 million people died of lung cancer in 2005, according to the World Health Organization. Health experts expect to see a sharp rise in the incidence of the disease due to smoking.
Meanwhile, a different study presented by the Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, argued that the anti-inflammatory drug Celebrex, used in high doses, could slow down the development of lung cancer among smokers.
Celebrex appeared to be able to block an enzyme known as COX-2, which in previous studies was linked to this type of cancer, viewed around the world as one of the most widespread and dangerous, according to the research.
"We cannot sit here and say that taking celecoxib is going to prevent lung cancer," said Doctor Edward Kim, the main author of the study. "What we do know was that Celebrex, when taken over a three- or six-month period, was safe to administer even at a higher dose of 800 milligrams daily."
Tim Olivier, a professor emeritus of medical oncology at Saint Bartholomew's Hospital in London, argued in his study that a single dose of chemotherapy could be as effective as radiological therapy in treating early stages of testicular cancer.
"This study establishes surgery followed by carboplatin chemotherapy as a safe new alternative for patients who have early stage seminoma and would prefer a treatment that lasts a shorter period of time," Olivier said.