Even these modest results energized patient advocates, who point to the lack of new treatments for ovarian cancer, which causes some 15,000 annual deaths in the United States as the eighth most common cancer among women.
“While we are looking for that silver bullet, this is a gift that shouldn’t be overlooked,” said Karen Orloff Kaplan, chief executive of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance.
Data on survival are still being collected, but the results are probably too disappointing for the drug’s maker, Genentech, to seek Food and Drug Administration approval of Avastin for ovarian cancer, said company spokeswoman Charlotte Arnold. The company, however, did receive approval this month from European drug authorities to market Avastin for ovarian cancer treatment.
Both of the studies hinted that patients with advanced ovarian cancer may benefit more than patients with earlier stages.
“There are likely to be subsets of patients with very advanced ovarian cancer who will experience a survival benefit as long as they’re being treated with Avastin,” said Robert A. Burger, an oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia who helped lead the second study published Thursday.
But sorting out patients who might benefit from those who won’t is impossible at present. “We desperately need to figure out a way to predict the folks who are going to respond to the drug versus the folks who will only get side effects of the drug,” said Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. Studies searching for such a test are ongoing.
Some hail small benefits
In a disease in which fewer than half of patients survive their diagnosis for five years, even the small benefit seen in the studies pushed researchers to herald the results as significant. “We have to consider it as a potential new treatment,” Oza said.
Other experts immediately pushed back on that assertion, saying the absence of a survival benefit disqualifies Avastin as a treatment except in very advanced cases.
“Our practice does not use Avastin in newly diagnosed [ovarian cancer] patients,” said Ursula A. Matulonis, director of gynecologic oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. “My opinion is not changing.”
The smaller of the two studies published Thursday, dubbed ICON7, followed 1,500 women in 11 countries. All received standard chemotherapy, and half received Avastin for up to 10 months after chemotherapy. In the Avastin patients, the drug halted the growth of their tumors for an extra month and a half.