Last night, Bristol-Myers Squibb and ImClone Systems announced that a study being published in the prestigious "New England Journal of Medicine" shows their cancer drug Erbitux extended the lives of some metastatic colon cancer patients. The median survival of the people on Erbitux was just over six months versus about four-and-a-half months for those who got conventional drug treatment.
While as a journalist I am always extremely cautious about venturing an opinion on the safety or efficacy of any drug, in this instance I am making an exception because the survival benefit of Erbitux is one that I personally suspect to be true.
Last week my friend, Dr. Scott Hitt, died of metastatic colon cancer. You can read Scott's obituaries that appeared in the "Los Angeles Times" and "New York Times". He was 49 and had been battling the disease since he was diagnosed in 1999. Eight years! I called him the "miracle man" because he had so beaten the odds several times over.
Erbitux came to market when Scott really needed it. When I learned that he had started taking Erbitux in combination with chemotherapy in 2004, I asked Scott if he'd be willing to do an interview with me about it on CNBC. We had been reporting for years about Erbitux as it related to the trading scandals of Sam Waksal and Martha Stewart, but because the drug was so new (it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration during the Martha Stewart trial) we hadn't yet talked to anyone who'd actually been on it. Scott agreed. And in early 2005 we aired the story in the video clip below.
In the close-ups, you may be able to see that Scott has a rash or kind of a bad case of acne on his face. That's a side effect of Erbitux and one that the NEJM study believes could be an indicator of how well the drug is working.
In other words, the worse the breakout, the stronger the survival benefit. At least, that's the theory the NEJM study authors think needs further investigation.
We checked in again on Scott about a year later and did (click here) a follow-up story. He was still taking Erbitux, but in a bold move he dropped the chemotherapy because he didn't like how it made him feel and was combining the Erbitux with Genentech's Avastin.
Using so-called "targeted therapies" alone or in combo with each other is considered the wave of the future in cancer treatment. Those drugs only go after the bad cells, unlike chemo which wipes out everything. In fact, in the ImClone press release touting the NEJM study, the company's Chief Medical Officer is quoted as saying, "This is the first time an antibody used as a single agent in colorectal cancer has demonstrated an overall survival benefit."
As a former practicing physician, Scott was an advocate and director of his own care--on his home computer he'd print out detailed monthly progress reports on how his cancer was or was not responding to the current cocktail--but it was also overseen by one of the most prominent colon cancer docs on the West coast.
Not everyone can afford or has the healthcare coverage to cover both of those very expensive drugs. For Scott, there did come a time when insurance balked and he did not fall into an income or household-worth bracket that would have made him eligible for the drugmakers' assistance programs.
Scott died nearly three years after he first tried Erbitux. He used the time to travel the world and do philanthropic and political work. How much of that "life extension" was the result of Erbitux, Avastin and/or Scott's will to live, we'll never know. Scott's case may just be a personal anecdote, but the evidence of a survival benefit from Erbitux, Avastin and an increasing number of other marketed and experimental drugs appears to be growing.
FYIi: I am back on Monday with new posts.
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