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Kidney cancer drugs stabilize rare pancreatic cancer tumours

10 February 2011

Two drugs used to treat kidney cancer have doubled survival rates in a rare form of pancreatic cancer, according to reports in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Two drugs used to treat kidney cancer have doubled survival rates in a rare form of pancreatic cancer, according to reports in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Neuroendocrine tumours (also known as Islet cell tumours) account for only about 1.4% of pancreatic cancer diagnoses. They tend to grow far more slowly than most pancreatic cancers and whilst they can often be surgically removed, there are few chemotherapy options available when they recur.

The two drugs, Pfizer's Sutent and Novartis's Afinitor,  were being used in Phase 3 clinical trials (the last step before seeking Food and Drug Administration approval for marketing), funded by the drug manufacturers. Both drugs doubled the time that the tumours were kept in check compared with placebos.

In one study, researchers at the University of Paris planned to recruit 340 patients with advanced neuroendocrine tumours and give half Sutent (also known generically as sunitinib) and half a placebo. Patients taking the drug had no progression of their tumours for a median of 11.4 months, compared with a median of 5.5 months in the group taking the placebo. The results were so promising that enrolment was halted; Pfizer said that it would be unethical to continue giving a placebo to patients.

In the second study, researchers at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer treated 410 patients with either Afinitor (also known generically as everolimus) or a placebo. The patients on Afinitor had no progression of their tumors for a median of 11 months, compared with a median of 4.6 months for those on placebo. They were not able to measure the effects on survival because patients on placebo were switched to the drug when their tumors began progressing.

An editorial article in the journal by Dr Robert Jenson and Dr Gianfranco Delle Fave of the United States’ National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases said: “These studies provide optimism. Both drugs are effective at improving disease-free survival, even in patients in whom other treatments have failed, and thus offer effective therapies where there were none before."  They suggested that even better results might be seen by using the drugs in sequence or together.

However, the drugs had several side effects, including sores, diarrhoea, vomiting and infections, which could a problem, the physicians said, because the drugs would presumably have to be taken for the rest of a patient's life.

References:

Sutent (sunitinib malate) for the Treatment of Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumors
N Engl J Med 2011; 364:501-513 February 10, 2011

Afinitor (everolimus) for Advanced Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumors
N Engl J Med 2011; 364:501-513 February 10, 2011

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