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13 Drug Companies Trying to Beat the Odds in Pancreatic Cancer


Visibility for pancreatic cancer is on the rise following the recent high-profile deaths of Apple's Steve Jobs and actor Patrick Swayze.

November marks Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 44,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. and over 37,000 deaths are expected from the disease in 2011. It has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers; 74% of patients die within the first year of diagnosis and 94% of patients die within five years[1]. Out of the top 15 cancer sites, pancreatic cancer is the only one with a five-year relative survival rate in the single digits [6%][2].

Visibility for the disease is on the rise following the recent deaths of Apple, Inc. (AAPL) co-founder Steve Jobs, and Ralph Steinman, a cell biologist who died several days before being named one of three winners for the 2011 Nobel Prize in Medicine. While awareness is increasing, there is an urgent need for more effective treatments and diagnostics to detect the disease earlier due to the fact that the number of new pancreatic cancer cases is projected to increase by 55% from 2010 to 2030[3].

Difficult Disease

The disease remains one of the most difficult to treat due to its extreme resistance to treatment and few early symptoms. At the time of initial diagnosis, 50% of patients have distant metastases to the liver or peritoneal surface, and more than 80% of the remaining patients have locally advanced tumors [confined to the pancreas but unresectable][4]. The majority of pancreatic tumors [95%] are adenocarcinomas that mainly develop from exocrine cells in the tissues of the pancreas[5]. The tumors are characterized by an aggressive behavior with a fast progression rate that makes them highly metastatic. In contrast, neuroendocrine tumors of pancreatic origin [pancreatic NET, also known as islet cell tumors] are not as common [<2%] and are considered less deadly[6].

Illustrating the difference between the two, Hollywood actor Patrick Swayze was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic exocrine cancer that had already spread to the liver in March 2008 and lost his battle with the disease in September 2009 at the age of 57. Apple's Steve Jobs underwent surgery for pancreatic NET in 2004 and didn't succumb to the disease until October 2011 at the age of 56.

Treatment for Organ Confined Disease

In terms of treatment, surgical removal of the tumor represents the best option for pancreatic cancer patients without invasion into surrounding organs or distant metastasis. Unfortunately, only 15–20% of all patients are candidates for potentially curative surgery[7]. Depending on the tumor localization, pancreaticoduodenectomy [Whipple procedure], distal, or total pancreatectomy can be performed. However, even with an optimal curative surgery, metastases often occur. Median survival time without evidence of recurrent disease is 21.2 months after surgical resection[8].

Treatment for Locally Advanced/Metastatic Disease

For locally advanced or metastatic disease, an effective single agent for pancreatic cancer remains elusive and treatment is still palliative rather than curative. Since its approval in 1997, Eli Lilly's (LLY) Gemzar® [gemcitabine] is the only single agent that improves symptoms and overall survival [OS] in patients with locally advanced or metastatic pancreatic exocrine cancer. However, gemcitabine is associated with a modest median OS of 5.7 months and one-year probability of survival rate of 18%[9]. No confirmed objective tumor responses were observed in the pivotal study.

Beyond Single Agent Gemcitabine

At least 35 Phase II trials of gemcitabine-containing regimens and 11 randomized Phase III trials have been performed to improve the efficacy of gemcitabine alone, but the progress to date has been incremental at best[10]. In these 46 trials, overall response rates ranged from 5% to 58% in the Phase II studies and 4.4% to 38.5% in the Phase III studies. Median OS ranged from 4 months to 13.1 months in the Phase II studies and 5.4 months to 9 months in the Phase III studies. Inclusion of heterogeneous patient populations in many of these studies may have confounded the results, as the median survival time for patients with metastatic disease and locally advanced disease is 3–6 and 9-13 months, respectively[11]. The only successful combination approved by the FDA in 2005 is gemcitabine plus Roche/Astellas Pharma's Tarceva® [erlotinib], which modestly increased the median OS to 6.4 months and one-year survival to 23%.

Hope on the Horizon

Despite the long list of past failures, drug developers continue to explore new options for treating pancreatic cancer and more than a dozen new treatments are currently being evaluated in clinical trials [see Table 1]. One product was recently approved and several programs have demonstrated encouraging results with data from pivotal trials due in the next 6-12 months. While a comprehensive review of investigational pancreatic cancer therapies is beyond the scope of this article, we briefly highlight some of the more high profile pancreatic treatments below:

Amgen, Inc. (AMGN)

Amgen is developing AMG 479, an investigational fully human monoclonal antibody that targets type 1 insulin-like growth factor receptor [IGF-1R], which plays an important role in the regulation of cell growth and survival. At the 2010 American Society of Clinical Oncology [ASCO] Annual Meeting, Amgen announced results from a Phase 2 study demonstrating that the addition of AMG 479 to gemcitabine resulted in an OS rate at six months of 56.6% versus 50.1% with gemcitabine alone[12]. Median OS was 7.3 months versus 6.2 months in the gemcitabine arm. Amgen initiated a Phase III trial with AMG 479 for metastatic pancreatic cancer in the second quarter of 2011 with data expected in late 2013 or 2014 [ identifier NCT01231347]. This trial focuses on metastatic disease and therefore should represent a homogeneous patient population where the median OS is expected to be 3–6 months in the control arm.

Celgene Corporation (CELG)

Historically known more for its franchise in treating blood cancers, Celgene moved into the realm of solid tumors through its 2010 acquisition of Abraxis BioScience, Inc. for $2.9 billion. As a result, Celgene is now developing Abraxane® [paclitaxel protein-bound particles for injectable suspension] for the treatment of metastatic pancreatic cancer. Abraxane is currently approved for the treatment of breast cancer after failure of combination chemotherapy for metastatic disease or relapse within six months of adjuvant chemotherapy[13].

In October 2011, positive Phase I/II study results with Abraxane in combination with gemcitabine in 67 patients with advanced pancreatic cancer were published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology[14]. In the Phase II component of the study, the overall response rate was 48% [21/44 patients], median OS was 12.2 months, and the one-year survival rate for patients was 48%. This compares favorably with the median OS of 5.7 months and one-year probability of survival rate of 18% with single-agent gemcitabine.

The combination of Abraxane and gemcitabine is now the treatment arm of an ongoing, international, randomized Phase III clinical trial for patients with metastatic pancreatic cancer [ identifier NCT00844649]. Importantly, this study specifically excludes patients with only locally advanced disease and therefore represents a homogeneous patient population where the median OS is expected to be 3-6 months in the control arm.

Clovis Oncology, Inc. (private)

In November 2009, Clovis licensed rights from Clavis Pharma for CO-101 in the U.S., E.U., and select other countries. CO-101 is an investigational, lipid-conjugated derivative of gemcitabine, currently in a pivotal Phase II randomized, open-label, multicenter study comparing CO-101 with gemcitabine as first-line therapy in patients with metastatic pancreatic adenocarcinoma [ identifier NCT01124786]. CO-101 is designed to improve upon the efficacy of gemcitabine by enabling the drug to enter cancer cells without requiring membrane expression of transporter proteins. As a hydrophilic molecule, the entry of gemcitabine into tumor cells is dependent upon the expression of specific membrane transporter proteins, particularly human equilibrative nucleoside transporter 1 [hENT1]. Data from the pivotal Phase II trial are expected in the first half of 2012 and the inclusion criteria for only Stage IV patients [metastatic] represents a homogeneous population to study in this trial.

In April 2010, Clovis Oncology, Inc. and Ventana Medical Systems, Inc. entered into a collaboration for the development of a hENT1 immunohistochemistry [IHC] assay, which will be used in Clovis' CO-101 clinical trials to identify patients with low level tumor expression of hENT1 protein. Approximately 50% of pancreatic cancer patients have been shown to have low tumor expression of hENT1 and low levels of tumor hENT1 expression have been shown to correlate with poor survival outcomes after gemcitabine therapy[15]. These observations support the hypothesis that limited tumor uptake of gemcitabine in hENT1-low patients is responsible for a poor treatment effect in many patients and is an excellent example of a biomarker-driven clinical strategy.

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