NPR logo Costly Cancer Treatments Zero In On Disease Niches With Mixed Results

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Costly Cancer Treatments Zero In On Disease Niches With Mixed Results

Cancer specialists from around the world are in Chicago right now for their biggest medical meeting of the year.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology confab is the place to present the latest research on cancer treatments. But if you're hoping for breakthroughs, this doesn't look like the best year to attend.

Yes, drugs that zero in on specific types of the disease, and that generally carry milder side effects than older chemotherapy, have transformed treatment for some patients with breast cancer and leukemia in recent years.

But cancer keeps turning out to be more complex, as researchers tease apart the genetic characteristics that distinguish one variety from another. The differences make it hard to come with drugs that will help lots of people.

"Cancer is like cable television," Dr. George Sledge, a breast cancer specialist and ASCO president, told the Wall Street Journal. "Thirty years ago you had three channels. Now you have 500."

As for this year's meeting, Avastin, the Genentech drug that blocks the formation of blood vessels feeding tumors, showed promise in slowing ovarian cancer. An experimental medicine from Bristol-Myers Squibb extended the lives of melanoma patients by a few months. And a Pfizer drug showed intriguing success in the treatment of people with a very specific kind of lung cancer.

Still, the dissapointments continue to outweigh the victories. As Forbes' Robert Langreth writes of the ASCO meeting:

The paucity of successful trials raises serious questions  about whether big drug companies, in their efforts to replenish their empty pipelines, may be rushing too fast to push their targeted cancer drugs into large-scale trials before they understand the biology enough. It suggests that the success rate for novel cancer drugs remains dismal despite the big advances in basic science.

And the progress being made is costly. Take, for instance, the use of Avastin to slow the growth of ovarian tumors by about four months — at a cost of around $72,000.

“Many would not consider this cost effective for the gain seen,” said Dr Elizabeth A. Eisenhauer of the Canada's National Cancer Institute, according to the New York Times.