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Science & Technology
Cancer in the News

Lung cancer is the biggest killer with 160,00 deaths expected

From Diana J. Choyce
May 21 - Jun 03, 2001

There have been some wonderful new breakthroughs in the treatment of cancer. And for those suffering from this vicious disease, this is indeed good news. In the States alone, the American Cancer Society expects over 500,000 deaths this year. Worldwide, that number is far bigger. For the record, lung cancer is the biggest killer with 160,00 deaths expected. Research is finally making some advances and here are their latest breakthroughs.

On 10 May, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first drug whose sole purpose is to kill cancer cells without damaging any healthy cells. The drug will treat patients with the rare chronic myeloid leukemia. A disease which affects 5,000 people a year and is fatal for half of that number. The drug, called Gleevec, and manufactured by Novartis Oncology, in East Hanover, N.J., will be available by prescription within a week. "It appears to change the odds dramatically for patients," Thompson says. "And what a wonderful thing to say." Though long-term survival rates are not known, in clinical trials financed by Novartis more than 90 per cent of patients in the first phase of the rare disease saw their cancer go into remission within six months of taking the drug. Gleevec is an entirely new class of drug. It is targeted to kill cancer cells, but leaves healthy cells alone. The drug acts by stopping the production of something called BCR-ABL, or the abnormal protein the leukemia cells make. "This drug, we believe, is the picture of future cancer treatments," says Dr. Richard Klausner, director of the federal National Cancer Institute. Although the drug may be able to restore normal blood counts to many patients with the disease, the treatment comes at a high price. A year's supply of pills will cost between $24,000 and $29,000. Dr. Brian Druker, director of the Oregon Cancer Institute's Leukemia Center at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, helped develop the drug and while elated, he is also frustrated. "At least a third of our patients that are diagnoses are over 65, and may not have access to this life saving medication because of a lack of insurance coverage," Druker says. Private insurers will most likely pay for it, but Medicare will not. Novartis is offering price breaks for needy patients. That corporate generosity may be the difference between access to this promising new drug and it being off- limits to others.

Next is a preliminary study that has found an experimental cancer vaccine that looks promising. The vaccine is meant to boost one's own immune system to better fight off cancer cells."It's a really important finding, showing that we're impacting on the body's immune response to cancer," says Dr. James Geiger, a pediatric surgeon at the University of Michigan. In this study at the University of Michigan, five children with advanced cancer saw their disease go into remission after they were given the vaccine. In one dramatic case, a tumor in a 16-year-old girl's lungs disappeared after she received the vaccine. "Having been in the field for over 20 years, trying to evaluate a variety of approaches for treating advanced cancer, this particular area to me opens up a whole new level of excitement," says University of Michigan cancer researcher James Mule. The medical community is excited, in part, because the idea is relatively simple. The vaccine is composed of specialized white blood cells taken from the patient mixed with proteins from the patient's tumor and then injected back into the body. In theory, cells like these could be used to fight a wide variety of cancers. Very early studies are already showing promising results in the battles against melanoma, kidney cancer and breast cancer. "We're hoping that they are not only attacking the tumor," says Dr. Anne Schott, a doctor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, but "that they will then educate the immune cells all over the body in case there are other tumors elsewhere that we're not aware of." It is still very early. There have been too few patients and too little time to call it a "breakthrough."

Cancer patients have been waiting for news and hope about experimental drugs for a very long time. One company, EntreMed, is working on some of the most eagerly awaited cancer drugs in history. "We're very optimistic about these drugs," says Dr. John Holaday, the chairman of EntreMed. "We think that they have real chance to make a difference in people's lives." The names may be familiar: Endostatin, Angiostatin and Panzem. They're called "angiogenesis inhibitors." Instead of just attacking a tumor, they attack the blood vessels that nourish it. "If you thin