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Roche announces positive test for key cancer drug

Roche says the trial results are a step in the right direction

(Keystone Archive)

Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche has announced positive test results for Tarceva, a new drug that could help treat advanced pancreatic and lung cancers.

Pancreatic cancer, for which current treatment options are limited, was the focus of the latest trial.

William Burns, head of Roche’s pharmaceuticals division, said: “The survival benefit delivered in this study is particularly exciting, as these results come on top of good data for lung cancer.

“This means new hope for pancreatic patients who currently have a poor prognosis, and further encourages us that Tarceva may have significant potential in a number of cancers.”

Burns added that the study, carried out together with Genentech and OSI Pharmaceuticals, confirmed Tarceva’s position as the fifth product in Roche’s oncology portfolio.

Search for treatment

Roche is the world’s leading supplier of pharmaceuticals for cancer treatment, but its portfolio does not yet contain an effective treatment for pancreatic cancer, which strikes 60,000 people every year in Europe alone.

Denise Anderson, an analyst at Kepler Equities, told swissinfo that Tarceva was likely to be one of the main value drivers for Roche in years to come, as long as the commercialisation process proceeded on track.

She said it could be marketed in the United States as a treatment for lung cancer by the first quarter of 2005.

In Europe, market launch for lung cancer treatment could come by the end of next year, with commercialisation for treatment of pancreatic cancer following by 2006.

US legislation allows doctors to use drugs approved for one purpose to treat other diseases, whereas the European licensing process is more disease-specific.

Unexpected result

“What is interesting about the [test results for Tarceva] is that many people had expected it to fail. Previous tests have indicated that Tarceva works well on its own for treating lung cancer, but not so well together with other drugs,” said Anderson.

“As cancer is normally treated in combination, these earlier results were something of a blow, whereas the latest test indicates that it works well in treating pancreatic cancer in combination with another drug,” she added.

But Anderson cautioned that Tarceva should not be thought of as a “miracle cure”.

“When you look at the extra time patients are gaining, it is not so much,” she said.

The study was conducted at sites in the US, Asia, Canada, Europe, Australia and South America.

It demonstrated a statistically significant 23.5 per cent improvement in overall survival for patients who received Tarceva and another drug, gemcitabine, compared with those receiving gemcitabine and a placebo.

swissinfo, Chris Lewis

Key facts

Pancreatic cancer claims 60,000 new victims per year in Europe, and fewer than five per cent live more than five years.
Tarceva is a small molecule designed to target a factor that is often critical to cancer cell growth.
Previous tests showed positive results for lung cancer, and the new trial suggests Tarceva could work against other cancers.

end of infobox

In brief

Roche, Genentech and OSI Pharmaceuticals have announced positive results from a study of a new cancer drug, Tarceva.

Tests demonstrated significant improvements in overall survival for patients with pancreatic cancers.

Cancer experts say the result represents an important step towards identifying a more effective treatment for the disease.

end of infobox


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