Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer Slowed by Eli Lilly Chemo Drug
Wall Street Journal (Dow Jones)
Eli Lilly & Co.'s experimental chemotherapy drug Alimta showed positive results in treating people suffering from a rare and insidious cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Results from a clinical trial showed that patients with malignant pleural mesothelioma treated with Alimta lived longer, endured less pain and breathed easier than patients treated with standard chemotherapy. Alimta is the first drug shown to prolong the life expectancy of patients suffering from what is an especially fatal form of cancer that has been resistant to treatment. The disease results in tumors, usually caused by asbestos fibers lodged in the lung, which attach to the lung lining and chest wall.
The study was presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology's annual meeting here. "This is the first time we have ever documented an improvement in mesothelioma survival," said lead investigator Nicholas Vogelzang, director of the University of Chicago Cancer Research Center, during a news conference. Life expectancy for patients treated with a combination of Alimta and the commonly used chemotherapy drug cisplatin increased 25% to 30% compared with patients treated with just cisplatin, according to study results. The study tested 448 patients, 226 of whom received a combination of Alimta and cisplatin. The remaining 222 patients were treated with cisplatin alone. Patients treated with Alimta survived a year, while patients taking cisplatin alone survived for nine months.
Tumors shrank in 41% of the patients treated with Alimta, compared with 17% of the patients treated with cisplatin. Lung function improved in Alimta patients and declined in patients taking cisplatin alone. Pain also decreased for patients treated with Alimta, but began to rise near the end of the study. Researchers have no illusions that Alimta will become a cure for the disease. Rather, it is intended to prolong a patient's life and alleviate symptoms. "It is not a cure, true, but it does offer patients hope," said Paul Bunn, president-elect of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Lilly is negotiating with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to gain fast-track approval for Alimta as a treatment for mesothelioma.
It is expected to come to market next year. The drug also is being tested as a possible treatment for lung, pancreatic and colorectal cancer. Mesothelioma is rare; the Centers for Disease Control recorded just 706 cases in the U.S. in 1980. But the numbers are rising. A conservative estimate is that an average of 2,500 to 3,500 new cases are reported every year. Some studies predict the disease will peak in 2010, as workers who handled asbestos in the 1960s and 1970s are being diagnosed 20 to 40 years later. Alimta is important to Lilly's pipeline.
The company recently lowered its financial projections for this year, citing delays in the release of two new drugs and slow sales of the sepsis drug Xigris. Lilly had expected to release Cialis, for male erectile dysfunction, and atomexetine, for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, this year. Lilly now expects the two drugs to be released in 2003. Like many cancer therapies, Alimta is designed to prevent cancer cells from growing by blocking the enzymes that allow the cell's DNA and RNA to replicate. But while other drugs block just one enzyme, Alimta blocks all three.