Melbourne, June 3 : Australian oncologists have made a major breakthrough that would enable a gene test to predict how bowel cancer patients would react to the current drug therapies.
The researchers conducted an international trail, which involved 587 people, including patients at six Australian centres and identified a type of gene that has become the first marker of bowel cancer.
Bowel cancer kills about 80 Australians every week and researchers found that the latest anti-cancer drugs, Erbitux, along with standard chemotherapy, may help individuals with their cancer in advanced disease and who have the "normal" form of the gene, i.e. about two-thirds of sufferers,
On the other hand, the remaining one third whose tumours contained the mutant form of the gene, did not benefit at all from adding the new drug.
Thus, it will now be possible to apply a genetic test to show who could be helped from having the expensive therapy, which is not yet listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
"This is a big step forward in personalised medicine which is targeted to suit an individual person's disease. It's better for patients because they don't get treatments that don't work, and the Government will like it too because it makes this costly drug more cost effective," Theage.com.au quoted Dr Niall Tebbutt, medical oncologist from the Austin Hospital in Melbourne and Australian investigator in the study, as saying.
While current treatments fail to cure advanced bowel cancer cannot, new targeted therapies that have been introduced in the markets have shown that promise in lengthening survival and improving quality of life.
Erbitux works by locking onto a specific growth protein in the tumour and switching off overactive chemical signals in cancer cells and hence blocking any kind of instructions from reaching it so that it does not grow or spread. While the drug is available in Australia for use when other therapies have failed, but it's still not subsidised and thus remains out of reach for most.
Australian oncologists say that the test for the gene is available now but is of "limited benefit" until the drug is awarded a subsidy, the chances of which are boosted on the back of the new results,
Professor Ian Olver, Cancer Council Australia chief, said that the development showed promising results for patients diagnosed with advanced disease, a common occurrence as the cancer has few visible symptoms.
"Ideally, though, we should be catching the disease earlier with bowel screening," said Professor Olver.
The trail also found that those having normal form of the gene had a 32 percent lower risk of disease progression when they added the new biological drug to their treatment.
The results were presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Chicago.