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New Cancer Drugs Offer Hope for Patients, Profits for Companies

Sales of the new vaccine for late-stage prostate cancer, Dendreon’s Provenge, are expected to reach $1 billion in the first two years, analysts have predicted.

This drug is one of several being showcased at the annual meeting of theAmerican Society of Clinical Oncologistsunderway in Chicago.

The gathering is the world’s largest of cancer researchers and one closely watched by Wall Street, as pharmaceutical’s giants and newcomers present their findings on what they hope will be the next big thing in cancer treatment.

Some overall themes have emerged, including drugs that treat subgroups of cancer types, rather than the whole disease.

Companies are realizing that they can make a lot of money addressing such specialized issues as late-stage prostrate cancer, in the case of Dendreon’s Provenge, or non-small-cell lung cancers, through crizotinib, a drug in trials and being developed jointly by Pfizer and AbbottLabs and, unusually, with the FDA.

Another trend is that, as cancer patients live longer, some forms of the disease are being treated as a chronic condition, as is AIDS nowadays.

However, for consumers the cost of the drugs can be prohibitive—with the price per year per patient running between $40,000 and $90,000 just for one type of drug.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Dendreon’s Provenge. For now, demand is exceeding supply, while Dendreon builds up its production arm. During its first year out, Dendreon is expected to produce only enough Provenge to treat 2,000 patients.

The manufacturer is upgrading its existing factory, said Dendreon’s CEO Mitchell Gold, and is building new ones in Atlanta and Los Angeles, which will be up and running by mid-2011.

  • Bristol-Myers Squibb shares rose more than 6 percent on Monday after news over the weekend that its experimental drug ipilimumab extended survival in patients with deadly skin cancer. Bristol's ipilimumab added an average of four months to the lives of patients with advanced melanoma, marking a major advance in a disease littered with failures.

The new drug enables a patient's own immune system to attack the cancer cells itself by releasing a brake that the cancer has put on the patient's immune systems, according to Bristol.

Of 82 lung-cancer patients in the clinical trials who took crizoinib, 57 percent had significant tumor shrinkage; the probability of those having no tumor progression at six months was 72 percent, according to Pfizer. That’s a breakthrough, said Mace Rothenberg, senior vice president of Pfizer’s oncology division, because the overall survival period is three to four months for a sufferer of this illness.

  • Delcath Systems’ treatment for liver cancer, melphalan, is still in clinical trials. According to Delcath CEO Eammon Hobbs, the drug could garner $775 million in sales in the US alone. However, 90 percent of liver-cancer sufferers reside outside the US, Hobbs told CNBC Monday.
  • AstraZeneca's vandetanib, to treat a type of thyroid cancer, is in clinical trials. According the American Cancer Society, 37,000 were diagnosed with the cancer in 2009 and two-thirds of those patients were women.
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  • More Cancer News from New York Times
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