An experimental drug discovered in New Zealand that extends the lives of lung cancer patients by a third has impressed doctors who say it is one of the first signs of progress against the disease.
Lung cancer is among the most lethal of all cancers and claims more lives each year than any other. Only 5 per cent of patients survive more than five years.
Efforts to find an effective treatment have failed and unlike other cancers, such as of the breast, the death rate has not changed for more than a decade.
A trial of the as-yet-unnamed drug, known as AS1404, in 70 patients with non-small-cell lung cancer, the commonest, found they lived for 14 months on average compared with 8.8 months for those given chemotherapy alone. Although the extra five months gained is small in absolute terms, it is a significant improvement, suggesting a genuine benefit from the medication.
The drug, which was discovered by researchers in New Zealand and developed by UK biotech company Antisoma with backing from Cancer Research UK, is one of a new class of compounds called vascular disrupting agents. These work by selectively destroying blood vessels that supply solid tumours on which the tumours depend to survive and grow.
The success of the phase II study lays the ground for a larger phase III trial, the outcome of which will determine whether the drug is licensed as safe and effective. AS1404 has already been shown to be effective in phase II trials of prostate and ovarian cancer.
Mark McKeage of the University of Auckland, one of the researchers, said: "It is great to see this large survival benefit with AS1404 in lung cancer patients. This makes me feel very optimistic as we progress into Phase III testing."
Professor Alex Markham, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said: "Cancer Research UK's drug development team played an integral role in the early development of the drug and we are delighted with today's news. We look forward to seeing how the drug performs in a much larger number of patients."
The charity has set up a development company to increase the number of undeveloped new treatments by putting them into clinical trials.