Looked at another way, 47% of those given Erbitux plus chemotherapy were alive a year later, compared with 42% of those who only received chemotherapy.
The results set a new standard of care for the initial treatment of patients with non-small-cell lung cancer, says researcher Robert Pirker, MD, of the Medical University of Vienna in Austria.
Pirker presented the findings at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
Targeted Therapy for Lung Cancer
Lung cancer is the leading cancer killer, taking the lives of more than 160,000 Americans last year, according to the American Cancer Society. Non-small-cell lung cancer is the most common type of lung cancer, accounting for more than 80% of cases.
About four in 10 of cases of non-small-cell lung cancer are diagnosed at an advanced stage, when they have already spread to other parts of the body and are notoriously difficult to treat. Only about 15% of patients are alive five years after diagnosis.
Currently, the only targeted therapy that is approved as an initial therapy for these patients is Avastin. The study that led to that's drug's approval showed it extended their lives by about eight weeks.
But patients with certain tumor types, such as those with squamous cell cancer, were excluded from that trial, Pirker says. And as many as 30% of non-small-cell lung cancers fall into that category.
In contrast, Erbitux "was studied in people with all subtypes of cancer. In other words, we had a patient population that better reflects real life," he tells WebMD.
Erbitux is a monoclonal antibody that blocks the effects of a protein called epidermal growth factor that fuels tumor growth. It's already approved for treating head and neck as well as colorectal cancers.
Avastin works differently, preventing tumors from growing new blood vessels, thereby choking them to death. It is approved to treat metastatic breast cancer as well as late-stage colorectal cancer and late-stage lung cancer.
"Erbitux opens up a new choice for a sizable group of patients" for whom there are currently no real options, Pirker says.
The most common side effect associated with Erbitux was an acne-like rash. Moderate rash was observed in 10% of patients taking Erbitux vs. less than 1% of those on chemotherapy alone.
New Option for Lung Cancer Patients
Almost every doctor questioned by WebMD agreed the findings will change the way doctors treat patients with advanced non-small-cell lung cancers.