The bad news: In up to 80% of patients, symptoms of pancreatic cancer typically don't develop until the cancer has spread beyond the pancreas, when surgical removal of the tumor is no longer possible, says Nicholas Petrelli, MD, medical director of the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center in Wilmington, Del.
Nevertheless, Petrelli tells WebMD, "These are very exciting, potentially practice-changing data."
"There are probably still community settings where patients with early-stage disease are only being offered surgery alone," he says. "These findings will change that. We can actually tell them Gemzar will increase their chance of survival."
Petrelli moderated a media briefing to discuss the new findings at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
Researcher Helmut Oettle, MD, of Charite University Medical School in Berlin, says, "Gemzar should be the standard of care for the treatment of pancreatic patients [following surgery]."
Treating Pancreatic Cancer With Gemzar
An estimated 37,680 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2008, according to the American Cancer Society. About 34,290 Americans will die of the disease, making it the fourth deadliest cancer.
Gemzar is a standard therapy for pancreatic cancer patients whose tumors can't be removed surgically.
The new study involved more than 300 patients who underwent curatively intended surgery for pancreatic cancer. Half received six months of Gemzar treatment afterward; the others were closely monitored for signs of tumor recurrence, with no specific anticancer treatment.
At three years, 76% of participants taking Gemzar had relapsed vs. 92% who didn't get the drug. At five years, the recurrence rates in the Gemzar and non-Gemzar groups were 84% and 94%, respectively;
21% of patients taking Gemzar were still alive after five years vs. 9% who didn't get the drug.
Put another way, half of patients given Gemzar were still alive 22.8 months after diagnosis vs. 20.2 months for the observation group.
Additional studies are under way to determine if adding the targeted therapies Tarceva or Nexavar to Gemzar can further boost survival of some pancreatic patients after surgery.