Can Pfizer's Breakthrough Help Steve Jobs?

Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduces the new iPod Nano in San Francisco, Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduces the new iPod Nano in San Francisco, Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008.

When a press release crosses the wires or pops into the inbox from a Dow component announcing positive late-stage test results on a cancer drug, you rush to get the headlines on the air as quickly as possible. That's the nature of the TV-news biz beast.

This morning I did just that when Pfizer unveiledthat Sutent appears to work so well on pancreatic cancer patients that the study's been stopped early to let the patients on placebo switch onto the real pill. But, as is the case with everything, the devil is in the details.

As I've blogged recently, pancreatic cancer is a tough nut to crack. Here, Pfizer's test is on a specific, very rare form of the disease that has spread. It affects an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people in the U.S. each year. So, the market may not be huge, but it is nonetheless significant and perhaps, incremental progress in a difficult to treat cancer.

The name for it is a bit of a mouthful: advanced pancreatic islet cell tumors, aka pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors. And it turns out this is apparently the same type of tumor that Apple's Steve Jobs is fighting. But we don't know if his cancer has spread. And, again, this particular study was on patients whose cancer is metastatic. If his cancer does fall into this specific category, I'm guessing if you're Steve Jobs you can get or have already gotten access to something like this or another experimental treatment or treatments. If he isn't part of the study, it would fall into the category of "off-label use." It's kind of a no-no, but it's a common practice by doctors who use or prescribe drugs for unapproved conditions.

Pfizer says Sutent, which is already on the market for kidney and digestive-system cancers, significantly increased what's called "progression free survival" in this study. That means people lived a longer amount of time without the cancer getting worse. The exact period will probably be released at the big oncology conference in the spring. PFE sold $847 million worth of Sutent last year, a 46 percent increase. In addition to this very rare form of pancreatic cancer, the company says it is also doing late-stage tests of Sutent on breast, lung, colorectal, liver and prostate cancers.

Pfizer shares are beaten down. And it needs every little positive piece of drug development pipeline news that it can get. That may explain why the stock is rallying this morning, even though this apparently affects a small, but needy patient population.

Questions? Comments?