What’s exciting in cancer research right now? In this post, I’ll briefly review several notable cancer research stories that have come out over the last two to three months.
These are a few of the recent stories that seem to have the greatest potential impact, at least from my perspective, and that I know I’ll want to follow as they continue to unfold.
Some of the topics covered this time include targeted therapies, reducing treatment toxicities and triple negative breast cancer.
A new drug called Ibrance (the generic name is palbociclib) received accelerated approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in early February as a treatment for postmenopausal women with estrogen receptor-positive advanced breast cancer. Ibrance is the first in a category of drugs known as CDK 4/6 inhibitors to be approved by the FDA.
Ibrance continues to be tested in a number of ongoing clinical trials for breast cancer, as well as several other types of cancer. For more on this story including the history behind Ibrance, see NPR’s A Biological Quest Leads To A New Kind Of Breast Cancer Drug.
Immune System Therapies
In early March, the FDA approved the use of the drug Opdivo (generic name is nivolumab) for the treatment of patients with a type of advanced lung cancer. This approval was especially notable because it was the first by the FDA of an immune system therapy for lung cancer patients.
Opdivo belongs to a category of immune system drugs called PD-1 inhibitors which act by “releasing the brakes” on the immune system. It had been approved in December for the treatment of advanced melanoma. Ongoing clinical trials are looking at whether Opdivo is an effective treatment for additional patients with lung cancer. For more on this story and implications of the approval, see this report in the New York Times.
Costs of Cancer Care
Another important first for the FDA this winter was the agency’s first approval of a so-called biosimilar for use in the United States. A biosimilar is a drug that is highly similar in safety and effectiveness to another drug already in use. The term is applied to drugs called biologics, which replicate natural substances in our bodies. The drug that was approved is called Zarxio and it is used to increase white blood cell counts in patients receiving chemotherapy.
Biosimilars, which have been used in Europe for years, are less expensive than the drugs to which they are comparable. Approvals of more drugs of this type could be one avenue for helping to improve patient access to newer cancer medications at more affordable prices. In a piece in Forbes, Dr. Elaine Schattner writes about the importance to patients of increased access to biosimilar drugs.
Reducing Treatment Toxicities
The information that is available on the adverse side effects, or toxicities, of cancer treatments comes from reports by physicians involved in clinical trials, and not directly from patients. A study reported in the Journal of Clinical Oncology followed three clinical trials with over a thousand patients and collected patients’ reports on toxicities along with the toxicities reported by the doctors.
The study found that agreement between patients and physicians was low, and that toxicity rates reported by physicians were always lower than those reported by patients. The authors concluded that these findings strongly support “the incorporation of patient-reported outcomes into toxicity reporting in clinical trials.”
Health Care Equality
A recent study provided some interesting insights on how disparities in cancer care and outcomes may be reduced. Racial disparities in colon cancer mortality have persisted for decades. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology reviewed the records of thousands of patients who were treated for colon cancer between 2001 and 2006.
The results of the study were striking. For patients who were treated in integrated cancer centers–where treatment consistently follows the evidenced-based guidelines published by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network–there were no disparities in 5-year mortality across racial/ethnic groups.
Triple Negative Breast Cancer
Researchers have identified a particular gene that is highly expressed in triple negative breast cancer, a sub-type of breast cancer for which targeted therapies are currently lacking. A study published in Nature Communications found that patients with high expression of the gene BCL11A tended to have poorer survival than other triple negative breast cancer patients. The researchers conducted a set of experiments in human breast cancer cells and in mouse models, which showed that high expression of the newly identified oncogene drives triple negative breast cancer development and progression. The researchers said their findings support further study of this gene as a potential target for new therapies that could inhibit its activity.
That’s it for this time. If there was another recent cancer research story or article that caught your attention or if you have thoughts on any of what I’ve included, I’d love to hear from you!
Photo by Lisa DeFerrari