New cancer drugs have been a dime a dozen in recent years, as the pharmaceutical industry has drastically refocused its efforts in the area. In 2012 alone the FDA approved a record 11 oncology drugs.
While on the surface, this may seem to be nothing but good news, in reality the results are mixed at best. The average new cancer drugs typically extend life by a few months at the cost of about $100 thousand per year.
But, should early clinical results hold up in subsequent trials, it looks like Merck may have come up with something that really makes a difference.
Their experimental antibody drug lambrolizumab, is showing real promise against metastatic melanoma a cancer with no good options. Although Bristol-Myers Squibb s Yervoy, was approved for advanced melanoma in 2011, only about 20 percent of patients respond to treatment. The response rate for lambrolizumab is far superior in early trials.
Lambrolizumab was designed to unmask tumor cells, thus allowing the immune system to attack the melanoma cells. Indeed, patients with advanced melanoma experienced a 38 percent shrinkage in their tumors after 12 weeks of treatment. Furthermore, there was a significant dose response. Patients receiving the highest dose tested saw a 52 percent reduction, and 10 percent of them had a complete response (no detectable tumor).
Lead author Dr. Antoni Ribas of the University of California Los Angeles Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center said in the report in The New England Journal of Medicine paper Even though [lambrolizumab is] the second player in the field and even though it s all early, it impressed me,
This opinion is echoed by Dr. Gary Gilliand, head of oncology at Merck Research Laboratories. He said, This is a top priority at Merck. We re going flat out to deliver benefit to patients with this novel mechanism.
ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom, who has been critical of the mass approval of marginally useful and highly expensive cancer drugs says, It is refreshing to see a new oncology drug that makes a material difference against the disease. For the most part, this has not been the case.
You can read Dr. Bloom s recent New York Post op-ed entitled Searching for the wrong miracles here.