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Cancer drugs get a boost from biotech innovations

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Cancer drugs get a boost from biotech innovations

"Smart bombs": Known as "targeted therapies," the medications take aim at a molecular level

By Andrew Pollack and Lawrence K. Altman The New York Times

ORLANDO, Fla. - New drugs developed using the tools of biotechnology are helping to prevent relapses among cancer patients and prolonging some lives, cancer specialists said Friday at the opening of the biggest annual conference devoted to treatment of the disease.

Much of the attention at this year's meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology is directed at ''targeted therapies,'' which take aim at the underlying molecular mechanisms that prompt tumor growth.

Those drugs have been a focus at previous conferences, but the evidence for their effectiveness is mounting, and experts are predicting that many cancer patients, if not most, will eventually receive at least one such drug.

''Targeted therapy is really a clinical reality,'' Roy S. Herbst of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center said at a news conference here. He called the drugs the ''smart bombs'' of cancer treatment.

A drug called Avastin, which works by choking off the blood supply to tumors, prolongs the lives of patients with lung cancer and also significantly delays the worsening of breast cancer, according to the results of clinical trials presented here. Another cancer drug, Herceptin, when used after surgery to remove breast tumors, cuts by about half the chance that breast cancer will recur.

Although these results were announced in advance of the meeting, many of the details are being released here for the first time, providing physicians with the crucial clinical details that they need to advise patients about the benefits and risk of treatment with the drugs.

Of course, what oncologists at the meeting celebrate as major gains are still far from cures.

Avastin, when added to chemotherapy, extended the median survival of people with advanced lung cancer about two months.

After two years, only 22.1 percent of those who got Avastin were still alive, although that was an improvement over the 16.9 percent who got only chemotherapy.

While the targeted therapies avoid some of the side effects of more traditional chemotherapy, they can have complications of their own and experts cautioned that physicians would have to be careful in using them.

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