CHICAGO – Adding the novel cancer drug Erbitux to standard chemotherapy helped advanced lung cancer patients live just a month longer than chemo alone, a study found.
Although this is the first study to find a survival benefit from a newer, more targeted cancer drug as initial treatment for lung cancer patients, the results left doctors mostly disappointed.
"It's a very small benefit. No one should try to make any more of it than that," said Dr. Roy Herbst, lung
cancer chief at
the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
He consults for Erbitux's makers but had no role in the study, which is to be presented Sunday at a meeting in Chicago of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
Results were released Saturday because a news release was inadvertently published early.
Lung cancer is the world's top cancer killer, claiming 1.3 million lives each year. In the United States, 215,000 new cases and 162,000 deaths from the disease are expected this year.
Most are non-small cell — the type in the new study. Five-year survival is only 15 percent, mostly because the cancer usually has already spread by the time it is diagnosed.
Erbitux is already used to treat advanced
colon cancer, and is best known for embroiling homemaking queen
Martha Stewart in an insider trading scandal several years ago.
The new study tested it in 1,125 people with lung cancer that had already spread widely. Average survival was just over 11 months for those given Erbitux on top of standard chemotherapy, versus just over 10 months for those on chemo alone.
The study was led by Dr. Robert Pirker at the
University of Vienna in
Austria. It was sponsored by Germany's Merck KGaA, which markets Erbitux with the drug's initial developer,
ImClone Systems Inc., and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.
The companies announced last fall that the study had met its main goal of improving survival, but no numbers were released until now.
Several other targeted drugs are used to treat advanced lung cancer but not as initial treatment. Erbitux is another possibility "in a field that needs all the help it can get," because the cancer is so lethal, said Dr. Nancy Davidson, a cancer specialist at
Johns Hopkins University who is president of the oncology society.