A treatment victory for pancreatic cancer is a victory for all. Clinical trials remain crucial for keeping the victories coming.
So much of our cancer knowledge has changed since President Nixon declared, rather optimistically, America’s war on cancer by signing the National Cancer Act in 1971. While his intent was just, it was filled with naivety. The war was not to be focused on cancer, but myriad cancers and subgroups or genotypes within cancers. Yet it was the first volley in an important cause. By 2015, cancer is projected to be the number one killer disease in our world.
While it may have taken longer to make our strides in cancer treatment and prevention than it took to put men on the moon, we stand in optimistic times. The walls between cancer research areas are crumbling and our understanding of cancer mechanisms, pathways, genetic mutations and erroneous genetic copy numbers are accelerating progress for all cancer patients. Discoveries made for one variety of cancer often hold potential for others. What’s more, researchers, increasingly required by funding organization to share their data, now welcome the opportunity to do so more than ever.
One case in point is the approval of ipilimumab (Yervoy)–one of the first immunotherapies designed to signal a patient’s own immune system to fight cancer–is currently showing promise for prostate cancer and is in Phase III trials for men with advanced, treatment-resistant prostate cancer.
Another important victory came this week with an announcement from The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network touting the positive results of a pivotal clinical trial for the treatment of pancreatic cancer. Celgene Corporation conducted a phase III clinical trial with the intent to show that the combination of its chemotherapy drug, Abraxane®, with gemcitabine would improve overall survival in patients with untreated, metastatic pancreatic adenocarcinoma when compared with gemcitabine alone. To date, the use of gemcitabine alone has been the standard of care for pancreatic cancer.
In the study, Abraxane in combination with gemcitabine demonstrated a statistically significant improvement in overall survival compared to gemcitabine alone. The complete overall survival statistics are not yet available. However, this information suggests that Abraxane plus gemcitabine is a safe and effective treatment option for patients with untreated metastatic pancreatic adenocarcinoma.
This is milestone news for a cancer that has a five-year survival rate of just six percent.
Now here’s another example of my point: Abraxane was first approved for breast cancer in 2005 and last month was approved for a type of lung cancer. It is a form of the chemotherapy drug paclitaxel that is modified by the addition of a human protein called albumin. Once Celgene releases the full data from the trial, it will take it to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approval in pancreatic cancer.
Research. Develop. Share. It’s a new paradigm for success in treating cancer patients.
Clinical trials provide a new tier of hope to patients. They give patients access to state-of-the-art treatment that may be their best option, and they help speed scientific progress toward therapeutic breakthroughs. They remain the only way to make progress toward better treatments.
I was asked a few weeks back to help pay tribute to my friend and brother in prostate cancer, Trip Casscells. Ten years ago, at age 49, he was diagnosed with severely advanced metastatic cancer that traveled rapidly beyond bone metastases, which are typical for prostate cancer, to soft tissue throughout his body. He was a cardiac physician who understood the importance of drug trials. With the help of five trials, Trip achieved a remarkable five remissions and was given ten more years of life. During that time, he joined the army and later served as assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. He also started two successful companies and his children were able to grow up knowing their father.
In a video interview I did with Trip a year before his death, he spoke of drug trials: “You don’t want to die thinking the drug that might save your life is sitting on the shelf… And the trial you are in may also end up saving the lives of others.”
Clinical trials patients like my dear friend,Trip, are real heroes in the research world. They blaze trails not only for themselves, but possibly millions who will someday be diagnosed.
As we celebrate Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, I am pleased pancreatic cancer patients were given very hopeful news. It’s a victory for them. It’s a victory for cancer patients everywhere.
Author Dan Zenka, senior vice president of the Prostate Cancer Foundation, was diagnosed with his own case of prostate cancer in April 2010 at the age of 51. He had a radical prostatectomy in June and was subsequently diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic cancer. He completed seven weeks of radiation treatment in December 2010 and endured two years of androgen deprivation therapy, which he is soon concluding. He started his blog, My New York Minute, within days of his original diagnosis to share information and patient perspectives and, most importantly, to encourage men to talk about prostate cancer.