By Deena Beasley and Bill Berkrot
LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK (Reuters) - The next wave of cancer therapy is focused on better ways of matching medicines to patients and on keeping tumors from recurring following successful treatment.
Data released on Wednesday provided glimpses of the two trends to be featured at one of the year's most important medical meetings -- targeted treatment and maintenance therapies -- which could have decidedly different impacts on the ballooning cost of cancer care.
"We are shifting from treating cancer based on its location in the body with fairly non-specific treatments to treating cancers based on their molecular and genetic characteristics," said Dr. George Sledge, president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), which holds its annual scientific meeting in Chicago early next month.
Such targeted treatments can help doctors identify which patients are most likely to benefit from a new drug, or experience debilitating side effects, and help save enormous cost by eliminating people who would not be helped.
At the same time, Sledge acknowledged that exciting new advances in cancer treatments and maintenance therapies designed to keep cancer in check carry hefty price tags and raise the specter of "breaking the bank."
ASCO released summaries of more than 4,000 clinical trials to be presented at its meeting, while holding back on some of the most eagerly anticipated studies for the event itself.
Those include data on promising new treatments for advanced melanoma that for the first time in decades offer hope to patients with the deadliest form of skin cancer.
Details released this week includes data from Roche and Pfizer on targeted lung cancer drugs being developed along with companion diagnostic tests to find the right patients.
"The key theme (of the meeting) indeed is targeted therapy," said Michael Yee, an analyst for RBC Capital Markets.
Pfizer unveiled life-extending data from an early stage trial of its crizotinib, which is designed to treat only patients whose tumors are positive for a gene known as ALK.
Only about 4 percent of the lung cancer population is ALK-positive and Abbott Laboratories has developed a test to identify those patients.
Roche's Genentech unit is developing a drug called MetMAB that improved progression-free and overall survival when combined with Tarceva only in patients whose tumors have a high level of a protein called Met, which accounts for about half of all those with non-small cell lung cancer.
Roche's Ventana diagnostics unit has a test that can weed out the low Met patients who would not be helped by MetMAB.
On the flip side is the research into using extremely expensive drugs as so-called maintenance therapies to keep the diseases of stable patients from progressing or to prolong remission. In those cases, medicines now typically given for finite course of treatment, and often not until a patient's cancer has worsened, might instead be used for years.
Celgene Corp, for example, has been testing its blockbuster blood cancer drug Revlimid as a maintenance therapy, which could vastly expand sales of the still-growing medicine.
AstraZeneca's experimental drug olaparib improved progression free survival in patients with the most common form of advanced ovarian cancer, according to data from a Phase II maintenance study released on Wednesday.
"A well-tolerated antitumor agent that could be used for months or perhaps years as maintenance therapy after standard chemotherapy could be a big step forward and ultimately extend survival," Dr. Jonathan Ledermann, the study's primary investigator, said in a statement.
It could also seriously test the limits of government programs and insurance company reimbursements for such treatments.
Small biotechnology companies often grab the spotlight at ASCO. And Exelixis Inc is expected to update trial results for its lead product, cabozatinib, which was shown in a mid-stage study an ability to help control advanced prostate, ovarian and liver cancers.
This year, however, major pharmaceutical companies that have made oncology a priority are expected to make a splash.
Results of advanced melanoma studies on a recently approved medicine called Yervoy from Bristol-Myers Squibb Co and on a drug from Daiichi Sankyo and Roche that is awaiting approval are anxiously anticipated.
"We see a relatively eventful ASCO ahead for the U.S. Major Pharma group, with a particular focus on Pfizer's crizotinib and Bristol-Myers' Yervoy," JP Morgan analyst Chris Schott said in a research note.
(Reporting by Deena Beasley and Bill Berkrot, editing by Matthew Lewis)