Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center Launches Research Into New Drug for Lung Cancer

For Immediate Release
22 Feb. 2010
Media Contact: Kevin Robinson

BENNINGTON — A new clinical trial at Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center may help doctors and scientists determine whether a cancer fighting drug already on the market may be combined with standard treatments to extend the lives of people with advanced lung cancer.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States. There is no screening test for the disease, which means that most cases are not detected until they are advanced. Advanced cancers are more difficult to treat because they cannot be surgically removed.

“The life expectancy of a patient with advanced lung cancer is typically less than two years even with treatment,” explained Dr. Orion Howard, director of medical oncology at Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center. “Clearly more options are needed to help patients with this disease. This clinical trial offers patients a new treatment along with one of the standard lung cancer treatments. It looks at which combination is best for patients with lung cancer.”

This clinical trial does not involve a placebo. Every patient in this clinical trial gets the standard treatment along with the new drug.

“It’s a common misconception that study patients get placebos,” explained research nurse Theresa Keefer, LPN CCRP. “But it’s not true at all. Patients taking part in this clinical trial will get the best standard treatment for their disease. In addition, all will get the new treatment added onto their standard treatment.”

In technical terms, the new trial is designed to treat non-small cell lung cancer that is at Stage IIIb or Stage IV. Non-small cell lung cancer is group of the most common lung cancers, including squamous cell carcinoma, large cell carcinoma, and adenocarcinoma. The stage numbers mean that the cancer has spread either to nearby tissue, lymph nodes, or to another organ in the body. Late stage cancers, such as these, cannot be treated with surgery alone because the cancer has already spread too far.

Chemotherapy is the standard non-surgical treatment for advanced lung cancer. Chemotherapy uses an infusion of highly potent drugs that attack cancer cells. For lung cancer, the standard treatment uses drugs based on platinum. Platinum kills cancer cells by damaging their DNA. The clinical trial will combine the standard, platinum-based treatment with Cetuximab, a drug that is already approved to treat cancers of the colon and the head and neck.

Doctors know a good bit about Cetuximab from its use in treating other cancers. The drug targets a part of the cancer cell related to cell growth factor receptor. In normal cells, these growth factor receptors function correctly. However, in some cases, such as non-small cell lung cancer, the growth factor receptors are overactive, helping to create cancer. Cetuximab shuts down the growth factor receptors, which slows the growth of the cancer cells and may actually kill the cells.

Scientists have already studied using Cetuximab to treat lung cancer in two other large studies with well over 1,000 patients. To date, the results are promising, showing that adding the drug increased the one-year survival rate from 42 percent to 47 percent.

“Clinical trials are one way for patients to try new combinations of therapies that may prove to be better,” Howard explained. “This particular trial involves combining chemotherapy drugs that are already used to treat cancer. We know how well they perform on their own, but we can’t predict how effective they will be together. Only the clinical trial can give us that information.”

Howard added that patients or physicians who are interested in learning more about this clinical trial may contact the cancer center at 802-447-1836.

“As a physician, it’s important that my patients have the best treatment options available,” he said. “It’s also important that they have the facts and can understand and make the choices that are best for them and their families.”