Erbitux Helps Treat Advanced Lung Cancer

Study Shows Benefits for Patients With Non-Small-Cell Lung Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on September 24, 2009
From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 23, 2009 (Berlin) -- Adding the targeted drug Erbitux to standard chemotherapy drugs significantly cuts the risk of death for advanced non-small-cell lung cancer patients -- regardless of what chemotherapy combination is used.

Last year, researchers reported that patients lived five weeks longer when Erbitux was added to a particular chemotherapy combination. But it wasn't clear whether the choice of chemo drugs mattered.

To find out, Jean-Louis Pujol, MD, chair of thoracic oncology at Montpelier Academic Hospital in France, and colleagues pooled data from four trials that looked at Erbitux plus various chemotherapy cocktails.

The analysis, which included 2,018 advanced non-small-cell lung cancer patients, showed that those who got Erbitux had a 13% lower chance of dying within three years than those who got chemotherapy alone.

Among other findings:

  • Patients given chemo alone survived a median of 9.4 months vs. 10.3 months in the chemotherapy plus Erbitux group.
  • Patients who got Erbitux were 10% more likely to be alive and free of cancer at three years compared with those who got chemotherapy alone.
  • Patients who received Erbitux were 48% more likely to experience tumor shrinkage.

The most common side effect was an acne-like rash.

The results were presented at joint meeting of the European Cancer Organization and the European Society of Medical 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 2% of patients with metastatic disease are alive five years after diagnosis.

Erbitux is a monoclonal antibody that blocks the effects of a protein called epidermal growth factor, which fuels tumor growth. It's already approved for treating head and neck as well as colorectal cancers.

Pooling the results of several studies give a more accurate estimate of a drug's true effects than each study alone, says Chris Twelves, MD, co-chairman of the committee that chose which studies to highlight at the meeting.

"With these large numbers, we can be very confident that Erbitux adds to the benefits of chemotherapy," he tells WebMD.

While the drug only extended the lives of patients by four to five weeks, on average, "it's likely that some patients get no benefit and some get greater benefit," says Twelves, professor of clinical cancer pharmacology at the Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine in Leeds, England.

Since the treatment can be costly, "the next step is to figure out the subset of patients for whom we get clinically meaningful benefit," he says.

The study was funded by a grant from Merck KGaA, which makes Erbitux.

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15th congress of the European Cancer Organization and the 34th congress of the European Society for Medical Oncology, Berlin, Sept. 20-24, 2009.

Jean-Louis Pujol, MD, chair of thoracic oncology, Montpelier Academic Hospital, France

Chris Twelves, MD, co-chairman, ECCO15-35ESMO program committee; professor of clinical cancer pharmacology, Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine, Leeds, England.

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