Finding Cures: New Targeted Therapy Raises Hope for Some Lung Cancer Patients

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The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Xalkori (crizotinib) to treat some patients with late-stage non-small cell lung cancer.

The drug is intended for the 1% to 7% of people with non-small cell lung cancer who have the abnormal anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) gene. It was approved with a companion diagnostic test to help determine whether patients have the ALK gene abnormality. The drug works by blocking certain proteins called kinases, including the protein produced by the ALK gene.

The safety and effectiveness of the drug were established in two studies of a total of 255 patients with late-stage ALK-positive non-small cell lung cancer. In one of the studies, 50% of patients taking Xalkori improved. In the other study, 61% improved. Most of the patients who are positive for the mutation - and thus likely to benefit from crizotinib - are non-smokers with a type of lung cancer called adenocarcinoma. When the drug works, it works quickly, and patients who are symptomatic from advanced lung cancer can have remarkable responses. It is important to note that in these trials, crizotinib was given to patients who had already received and failed prior chemotherapy.

This is truly an exciting breakthrough, and no knows how effective this drug might be if given earlier in the course of lung cancer treatment, perhaps as first line therapy for recurrent or advanced lung cancer. However, the cost of the one year's worth of the pills is tens and thousands of dollars.

Cancer researchers have been trying to find the correlation between this gene and lung cancer for years, and the American Cancer Society has funded many of these scientists doing the work. Finally, in 2007, this new association with ALK and lung cancer was discovered by a group of researchers from the University of Tokyo. Without the funding from ACS, these vital contributions would not have led to the correlation we have learned today.

Researchers are learning more about the inner workings of lung cancer cells that control their growth and spread. This is being used to develop new targeted therapies. Some of these treatments, such as bevacizumab (Avastin) and erlotinib (Tarceva), are already being used  to treat non-small cell lung cancer. Others are now being tested in clinical trials to see if they can help people with advanced lung cancer live longer or relieve their symptoms.

If you have any questions on how you can help a loved one receive more information on this new FDA-approved drug, call the American Cancer Society's toll free number - 1.800.227.2345 - where cancer information specialists are on duty 24/7, 365 days a year.