Pancreatic Cancer Patients See New Hope
For the first time in years, doctors are making progress against pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest of all tumors, which kills all but 6% of patients.
Although there is still no cure, a new drug combination can help patients live months longer than on standard therapy. And other studies already underway may soon offer even more options, researchers say.
Patients taking Folfirinox, a novel combination of four drugs already approved to fight other cancers, lived 11.1 months, 4.3 months longer than those given standard chemo, according to a French study of 342 patients in today's New England Journal of Medicine.
That might not seem like a lot of time in any other disease.
But study author Thierry Conroy notes that pancreatic cancer is especially lethal, typically killing patients in only about six months. Patients diagnosed with the disease have so few options that the Food and Drug Administration approved a drug called Tarceva to treat pancreatic cancer in 2005, even though that drug improved survival by only about two weeks.
Although Folfirinox caused more serious side effects than standard chemo, patients still rated their quality of life higher, Conroy says. That may be because Folfirinox prevented their tumors from causing serious side effects, such as pain, loss of appetite and weight loss.
Doctors are already changing their practice based on the study, which was presented at a medical meeting last year, says cancer specialist Gauri Varadhachary of Houston's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, who wasn't involved in the new study.
"This is great news for our patients," Varadhachary says. "I see it becoming the standard of care. I see patients requesting it."
Others caution that the new drug regimen isn't for everyone with pancreatic cancer.
Patients in the study were under age 76 and especially healthy, says cancer specialist Nilofer Azad of Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, who wasn't involved in the new study.
But Azad notes that doctors are testing other drug combinations to treat pancreatic cancer. She's hopeful that these combinations will work as well or better than Folfirinox, with fewer serious side effects.
Folfirinox "is going to be one of a host of options," Azad says.
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