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HVMC researching new drug for cancer patients

Friday, February 03, 2006

By Staff report

Dr. Byron May, a radiation oncologist at HVMC, is one of 12 researchers at five Southeast cancer centers who studied the effectiveness of the drug megestrol acetate as an appetite stimulant for cancer patients. Photo courtesy of HVMC.

KINGSPORT - Patients undergoing radiation treatment for cancer of the lung, head or neck often suffer severe weight loss - so much so that doctors sometimes have to suspend the potentially lifesaving therapy.

New research conducted at Holston Valley Medical Center, however, has found that a drug originally used to treat breast cancer helps combat weight loss among patients receiving radiation treatment for lung and head and neck cancer.

Dr. Byron May, a board-certified radiation oncologist at HVMC, is one of 12 researchers at five Southeast cancer centers who recently investigated the effectiveness of the drug megestrol acetate as an appetite stimulant for cancer patients. The results of the clinical trial were presented at a meeting of the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology.

"The average patient with head and neck cancer who has radiation and chemotherapy suffers moderate to severe problems two to three weeks into treatment," May said. "Treatment generally lasts two to three months. During the treatment, many patients lose 5 to 10 percent of their body weight, which is nutritionally horrible.

"We've found that megestrol acetate stimulates appetite. It doesn't work for everyone, but it works for enough people to be valuable. It lets people go on with their radiation with no breaks, and it offers a better quality of life while people are receiving their treatments."

People who receive radiation treatments for lung cancer and cancers of the head and neck often have difficulty swallowing and must take pain medications to eat or drink, May said. Radiation treatments affect the way food tastes, as well.

"Most people who are undergoing radiation treatments tell me that everything they eat tastes like cardboard," he said. "When nothing tastes good and it hurts to eat, it can be difficult to make yourself eat."

Megestrol acetate is a synthetic form of the female hormone progesterone. The drug was originally used as a treatment for breast cancer and was found to induce weight gain. It has since been used to stimulate the appetite of patients with HIV and other chronic diseases.

The recent research study involved 38 patients. Twenty patients received megestrol acetate daily during eight weeks of radiation treatment and for 12 weeks afterward. The remaining 18 patients received a placebo. The patients receiving megestrol acetate did not experience a significant weight change. By contrast, the patients receiving the placebo had a mean weight loss of 11 pounds after 20 weeks.

"Megestrol acetate helps some people because it makes them want to eat," May said. "And patients who can eat and drink are more likely to go through their treatment with no breaks. The fewer breaks a patient has in his treatment, the better the outcome is likely to be."

The research study was conducted by the Comprehensive Cancer Center of Wake Forest University Research Base, a National Cancer Institute-funded network of 93 community cancer centers in 19 states working with Wake Forest to conduct clinical trials in cancer patients. In addition to Holston Valley, other participating cancer centers were Wake Forest Baptist, Winston-Salem, N.C.; Gibbs Regional Cancer Center, Spartanburg, S.C.; Mountain Radiation Oncology, Asheville, N.C.; and Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, Greenville, N.C.

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