New Lung Cancer Pill Highlights Improved Way of Treating Patients

FDA-approved drug shrank or eliminated tumors in several studies.

Aug. 30, 2011 — -- A new drug to combat a certain type of lung cancer is being hailed today as an "amazing development" by medical experts.

The drug crizotinib (Xalkori), manufactured by Pfizer and approved last week by the Food and Drug Administration, is intended for a small number of patients.

The twice-daily capsules are meant for patients with non-small cell lung cancer who have a unique gene known as an abnormal anaplastic lymphoma kinase(ALK). An ALK gene causes cancer growth and development.

Pfizer held a panel today to discuss the implications of the new drug.

"What we've seen from studies to date is that this pill does have significant activity," said Dr. Alice Shaw, a thoracic oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, who took part in crizotinib studies. "For about 60 percent of patients, they will have a significant shrinkage in their tumors and what the preliminary studies have also shown is that the median or average duration of response is on the order of 10 months."

Lung Cancer Drug Blocks Proteins

Crizotinib works by blocking the proteins produced by the ALK gene. The FDA also approved a diagnostic test by Abbott Laboratories that screens for the gene. Patients found to have the gene would be able to be prescribed the pill, although chemotherapy and radiation therapies would remain options.

The most common side effects, according to Medpage Today, reported in patients taking crizotinib were vision disorders, nausea and edema.

About 187,000, or 85 percent of the 220,000 lung cancer cases diagnosed yearly, are non-small cell lung cancer. Of those cases, less than 7 percent have the ALK gene.

Dr. David Carbone, a lung cancer specialist at Vanderbilt University, one of the sites that tested the drug, told The Associated Press that for those patients, crizotinib made a huge difference. "It's pretty exciting," he said.

"For many patients, this drug has been a lifesaver," Massachusetts General's Shaw told ABC News. "For many patients, they experienced a very immediate and significant relief in their symptoms, sometimes within the first week."

Dr. Roy S. Herbst, chief of medical oncology at Yale Cancer Center, said that crizotinib's FDA approval was a "pivotal milestone" in lung cancer treatment.

"It's another example of how we are using molecular medicine to effectively treat a subset of cancer patients," Herbst told ABC News via email.

Medpage Today and The Associated Press contributed to this story.