2008's 12 Major Cancer Advances

Cancer Doctors' Picks for Year's Biggest News in Cancer Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on December 15, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 15, 2008 - Twelve major advances made cancer treatment and prevention a lot better in 2008, according to the American Society for Clinical Oncology.

ASCO today announced its annual list of major advances in cancer treatment and prevention. They're impressive accomplishments.

But there's a lot more to do: In 2008, an estimated 1.4 million Americans learned they had cancer. Half a million died from the disease.

The 12 choices come from the 21 cancer specialists who make up ASCO's editorial board.

"Only studies that significantly altered the way a cancer is understood or had an important impact on patient care were included," the editors note.

ASCO's 12 major advances:

Erbitux for Lung Cancer

Advanced non-small-cell lung cancer is a grim diagnosis. A 2008 study showed that adding Erbitux to standard chemotherapy increased survival by up to 21% in patients whose tumors carried a molecule called epidermal growth factor receptor or EGFR.

Gemzar for Pancreatic Cancer

Only 5% of people with pancreatic cancer are still alive five years after their diagnosis. In 2008, a large study of patients with early pancreatic cancer showed that, after surgery to remove their tumor, Gemzar chemotherapy doubled disease-free survival and increased overall survival.

Treanda for Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL)

In March 2008, the FDA approved Treanda for first-line treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukemia or CLL.

It was an unusual approval, as Treanda has been available in Europe for some 30 years. Researchers had thought it was just another member of a similar class of drugs -- but then they learned it had a different mode of action that might work against a wide range of cancers of the blood.

Astonishing news came from an international study that showed Treanda completely eliminated cancer in 30% of CLL patients.

Avastin for Metastatic Breast Cancer

Avastin starves tumors by making it hard for them to grow the new blood vessels they need for nourishment. It's been used in colorectal and lung cancer. Last February, the FDA approved Avastin for use in combination with Taxol in patients with previously untreated metastatic breast cancer that does not carry the HER2 marker.

Approval came after a 2007 study showed the Avastin/Taxol combo doubled disease-free survival compared to Taxol alone.

Long-Term Hormone Therapy for Breast Cancer

It used to be that all doctors could do to prevent breast cancer recurrence was to give women five years of tamoxifen treatment. New studies changed that, showing that women can reduce their risk of breast cancer recurrence even more by taking tamoxifen or an aromatase inhibitor (such as Femara) for several years.

Zometa for Breast Cancer

Researchers last year learned that Zometa, a bone-strengthening drug, reduces the risk of breast cancer recurrence if given to premenopausal women undergoing hormonal-suppression therapy with tamoxifen or Arimidex plus Zoladex.

Pegylated Interferon for Melanoma

A European study showed that a year of treatment with pegylated interferon -- a newer, more active form of interferon -- cuts the risk of recurrent melanoma by 18% in patients who had the deadly skin cancers surgically removed.

Targeted Erbitux for Colon Cancer

Studies showed that Erbitux only works in patients whose tumors carry a normal KRAS gene. While this means that patients with KRAS-mutant tumors won't benefit from Erbitux, there's an upside. It means these patients won't unnecessarily suffer from side effects of the chemotherapy.

The Pill Cuts Ovarian-Cancer Risk

A review of data from 45 studies showed that for every five years they're on the pill, women who take oral contraceptives cut their risk of ovarian cancer by 20%.

HPV Vaccine May Cut Oral Cancers

A 2008 study showed that oral cancers linked to human papillomavirus (HPV) went up in the U.S. -- even though oral cancers not linked to HPV went down. That might be because of an increase in oral sex. If so, the HPV vaccine -- now approved for prevention of cervical cancer -- might have a role in preventing oral cancers, too.

Oncologist Shortage Looms

ASCO estimates that by the year 2020, the U.S. will have 4,000 too few cancer specialists. By then, the number of cancer patients will increase by 55%. The number of oncologists is increasing at a much slower rate.

Caring for Childhood Cancer Survivors

One of the wonderful successes in the fight against cancer has been an increase in the number of kids who survive childhood cancer. But a chilling new study shows that 30 years after their cancer diagnosis, these kids are five to 10 times more likely than other kids to develop heart disease. The reason: side effects of cancer treatments. Patients and families must be aware of this fact. Their doctors must carefully monitor these survivors for heart problems and target them for prevention efforts.

For continued advances in cancer treatment and prevention, ASCO calls for increased federal spending on clinical cancer research and for removing barriers to participation in clinical trials of new cancer treatments.