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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Avastin Oh Avastin

"Sometimes, despite the hopes of investigators, patients, industry and even the FDA itself, the results of rigorous testing can be disappointing." FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg

Hamburg said the choice was difficult because so many women and their doctors have put their faith in the drug and lobbied hard on its behalf.

"It does not improve survival," said Dr. Joanne Mortimer, director of the Women's Cancers Program at City of Hope in Duarte, who served on two of the three FDA advisory panels that debated Avastin's use for breast cancer. "Yes, it keeps your cancer under control longer. But … the risks are pretty huge."

They claim that Avastin will keep your cancer under control but you will have a higher risk of death from stroke or heart attack. The medication raised blood pressure and increased the risk of congestive heart failure. The risk of serious bleeding was five times higher among users of Avastin than it was for those on chemotherapy only. What about survival?

Hopes that Avastin could prolong life for patients with advanced breast cancer rested on a 2007 study in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers found that patients who took the drug in combination with the chemotherapy agent paclitaxel experienced an 11.8-month window, on average, during which their cancer was not growing. That compared with an average of 5.9 months of progression-free survival in patients receiving standard chemotherapy alone.

But even in that study, patients on Avastin did not live longer, said Dr. Kerin Adelson, a medical oncologist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

A later study confirmed Avastin's failure to extend survival, and brought the drug's risks into better focus, Adelson said. (One of her own breast cancer patients who took Avastin had a massive stroke, she said.)

"Many drugs will improve the amount of time it takes for a cancer to grow but don't improve the amount of time a patient lives," she said.

Alas you would think that an interesting cancer research project would be born. Using tumor growth as an end point to a cancer drug development program is flawed. What could be a better approach? Avastin generated about $3.5 billion in sales in the United States in 2010. Sales have dropped since the FDA made it known that they were concerned about the risks and the lack of efficacy on survival.

That plane did not land. People still want to take it. At $5oK per year, that cargo plane should land and bring with it plenty of health and happiness for those running short due to breast cancer. Since it doesn't, we have to say good by. The choice should not be difficult for the FDA boss. Ah but how reluctantly the mind consents to reality!

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