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Is Taxol the Vioxx of Cancer Drugs?


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In the last decade, the incidence of central nervous system (CNS) metastasis has increased. The very first reference I found of this was a NCI observational study in 1995 that reported experience in their clinic where recurrent systemic disease occurred in all patients for which they received dose-intense Paclitaxel (Taxol) therapy. Brain metastasis was the only site of disease recurrence. The cerebellum was involved in two out of three patients, presenting with headache, dizziness, unsteady gait, nausea and vomiting (all the things that happened to my wife in 1998, after her adjunct Taxol treatment in 1997).

This is what led me to research this further and found out about the rarity of ovarian cancer cells metastasizing to the brain. Ovarian cancer uncommonly involves the nervous system. Brain metastasis was a "rare" complication of ovarian cancer with only 67 well-documented cases in medical literature, until 1994. A multi-institutional study of 4027 ovarian cancer patients over 30 years identified only 32 cases while an autopsy study of ovarian cancer reported an incidence of 0.9%. Even more "rare" is the occurrance of Carcinomatous Meningitis. Until 1994, there have been only 14 cases reported. This presentation is similar to metastases from other solid tumors (breast, lung). (1)

In 2002, I came across a study by Christos Kosmas, M.D., consultant medical oncologist, Department of Medicine and Medical Oncology Unit at Helena-Venizelou Hospital, Athens, Greece entitled, "Carcinomatous Meningitis: Taxane-Induced," which found what is called "dissemination after taxane-based (Taxol) chemotherapy." The study conclusions stated that Carcinomatous Meningitis (a CNS metastasis) after a major response to front-line taxane-based regimens represents a grave disease manifestation and its incidence appears increased when compared retrospectively to non-taxane-treated patients. (2)

A commentary by Dr. Lawrence N. Shulman, Vice Chair for Clinical Services and adult Oncology, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School, Boston, in the September, 2002 issue of The American Journal of Oncology Review, describes the complete lack of progress in the chemotherapeutic treatment of metastatic breast cancer since 1970. Dr. Shulman noted that a retrospective comparision of a well-characterized "standard-dose" database with a less well-characterized "high-dose" database suggested that there was increased early mortality for "high-dose" therapy. (3)

An editorial by Drs. V. Valero and G.N. Hortobagyi in the March 15, 2003 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, reviewed all of the large, prospective, randomized trials published comparing taxane-based chemotherapy regimens. They conclude that none of these regimens have increased either complete response rates or overall survival, with median survivals remaining at two years or less, or precisely the same results which were being obtained over thirty years ago. (4)

In 2004, as reported at the 27th Annual San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, using a technique that quantifies circulating tumor cells, German investigators from Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena, have shown that neoadjuvant chemotherapy with paclitaxel (taxol) causes a massive release of cells into the circulation, while at the same time reducing the size of the tumor. The finding could help explain the fact that complete pathologic responses do not correlate well with improvements in survival.

In the study, according to Katharina Pachmann, M.D., professor of experimental oncology and hematology, breast cancer patients undergoing neoadjuvant chemotherapy gave blood samples in which epithelial antigen-positive cells were isolated. Such cells are detected in most breast cancer patients but are rarely found in normal subjects. The investigators measured the levels of cirulating tumor cells before and during primary chemotherapy with several different cytotoxic agents.

Paclitaxel (taxol) produces the greatest degree of tumor shrinkage but also the greatest release of circulating tumor cells. In three different paclitaxel-containing regimens, circulating cell numbers massively increased, whereas tumor size decreased. These cells remained in the circulation for at least five months after surgery.

The tumor shrinks, but more cells are found in the circulation. This corresponds with a high pathologic complete response during paclitaxel treatment, but in the end, this is not reflected in improved survival. These cells are alive in the circulation. What this study has shown, so far, that in three different paclitaxel (taxol) containing regimens, as the tumor collapses (a clinical response, not cure), it produces the greatest release of circulating tumor cells. The study has not looked at any other combination regimens. (5)

The results of these kinds of study are coming out slowly and quietly (now that Taxol is off-patent) and indicate that taxol containing regimens didn't prolong survival over other more conventional and less expensive cytotoxic drugs. Even before the advent of the CellSearch technique, it had been observed in various "cell death" assays, that there was an increase in the number of metabolic activity of mitochondria of the surviving cells from taxane therapy, even in cases where the majority of the cells are being killed by taxanes. It may indeed give clincial response (tumor shrinkage), sometimes impressive, however, these are mostly short-lived and relapses after a response to taxanes (Taxol) are often dramatic. (6)

With these cells being alive in the circulation, it may mean that a patient with invasive breast cancer without lymph node involvement (where systemic treatment "may" benefit), or a patient with invasive breast cancer that involves lymph nodes (where systemic treatment is "usually" recommended), would need additional (anti-estrogen) treatment, such as Tamoxifen (it may be given alone or in addition to chemotherapy, if given).

It has been shown that Tamoxifen treatment will reduce circulating tumor cells in some patients, but not all. So they develop a drug called Herceptin. Why? It has been shown that Herceptin treatment will reduce circulating tumor cells in patients with HER2-negative tumors, but less pronounced in HER2-positive tumors.

Does Herceptin really work on these circulating tumor cells? A study from the Dana Farber Cancer Institute identified central nervous system metastases in women who receive trastuzumab-based (Herceptin) therapy for metastatic breast carcinoma. Central nervous system disease is defined as one or more brain metastases or leptomeningeal carcinomatosis (carcinomatous meningitis).

Central nervous system metastases was identified in 34% of patients at a median of 16 months after diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer and 6 months from the beginning of Herceptin treatment. Patients receiving Herceptin as first-line therapy for metastatic disease frequently developd brain metastases while responding to or stable on Herceptin. (7)

In 2006, another report that CNS relapses are common among breast cancer patients treated with a taxane-based chemotherapy regimen. Central Nervous System Relapse in Patients With Breast Cancer Is Associated With Advanced Stages, With CK-19 mRNA-positive Circulating Occult Tumor Cells and With Her2/neu-positive tumors.

During the past years it has been frequently observed that patients with breast cancer treated with a taxane-containing chemotherapy regimen, either in the adjuvant setting or in the metastatic setting, presenting central nervous system (CNS) involvement as the only evidence of disease progression. More studies were therefore interested to evaluate the incidence of CNS metastases in patients with early and advanced breast cancer treated with a taxane-containing chemotherapy regimen and to identify predictive factors for CNS relapse.

Recent studies reported that breast cancer patients who received a taxane-containing chemotherapy regimen had a significantly higher incidence of CNS metastases compared with that of patients treated with a nontaxane-containing regimen. There are also data indicating an increased risk for brain metastases in breast cancer patients receiving trastuzumab (Herceptin).

In the present study it was also possible to confirm the initial clinical observation that breast cancer patients who receive a taxane-containing chemotherapy regimen have a significantly higher incidence of CNS metastases compared with that of patients treated with a nontaxane-containing regimen.

The reasons for the association between treatment of breast cancer with a taxane-containing chemotherapy regimen and an increased incidence of CNS involvement could be that taxanes are very lipophilic, their concentration in the CNS is very low after their intravenous administration. Taxanes are unable to penetrate the intact blood-brain barrier, the concentration of radiolabeled paclitaxel in the cerebrospinal fluid is found to be significantly lower than in other organs, and thus undetectable in the brain, in the spinal cord or in any other site of the CNS.

Also, paclitaxel is exported from the p-glycoprotein and other ATP-binding cassette transporters placed at the luminal membrane of brain capillaries, as an explanation for the low concentrations of taxanes in the CNS.

Furthermore, the detection of cytokeratin 19 (CK-19) and of mRNA-positive circulating tumor cells (CTCs) in the peripheral blood and the bone marrow of patients with breast cancer is correlated with increased incidence of relapse.

The aforementioned data suggest that taxanes may not penetrate well into the CNS, and therefore the CNS may represent tumor 'sanctuary' sites for taxane-containing chemotherapy regimens. A difference in the incidence of CNS relapses between patients with breast cancer and other solid tumors treated with taxanes was observed. (8)

The percentage of patients that must respond to a drug before it is approved by the FDA varies from as high as 80% to as low as 20%. Thereafter, it is used routinely for all patients with the same form of cancer, though unfortunately a drug that helps one person does not necessarily mean it will help all patients with the same diagnosis. The response rate for Taxol for FDA approval was 30%.

Taxol (Paclitaxel) is known as a taxane type of chemotherapy drug. Taxol is given into a vein, but in order for the body to absorb the drug, it must first be dissolved in a solution. The compound wouldn't dissolve very much in any solution. It was discovered that something Taxol would dissove in the might work in a reasonably safe intravenous solution in humans. It was an elixir made of castor oil and marketed as Cremophor EL. It was the only answer. However, this castor-oil carrier is suspected as the culprit behind the misery which includes nausea, vomiting, joint pain, appetite loss, brittle hair and tingling sensations in hands and feet (neuropathy). (9)

The American Cancer Society has mentioned that the solution can cause dangerous allergic reactions in many people, so patients "must" first take other drugs like steroids and antihistamines in "hopes" to prevent a bad reaction. The solution can also leach chemicals from regular plastic tubes used to deliver medication, so Taxol must be given through special tubing.

A new drug for breast cancer (Abraxane) is a new form of Taxol (Paclitaxel). Abraxane does not need to be dissolved in the castor oil solution and does not require special equipment to be given to patients. However, more of the women on Abraxane had numbness and tingling in their hands and feet. And more suffered nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, muscle and joint pain and anemia.

Taxol (Paclitaxel) is an extremely potent chemotherapy drug, often producing a number of side effects in patients. Side effects of Taxol (Paclitaxel) include severe allergic reactions, cardiovascular problems (such as changes in blood pressure), infections developing from white blood cell deficiencies, complete hair loss (apolecia), joint and muscle pain, irritation at the Taxol and other chemotherapy drugs injection site, low red blood cell count, mouth or lip sore, numbness or burning in the hands and feet, and stomach upset/diarrhea. (10)

There is a molecular basis for the peripheral pain caused by Taxol. It appears to be caused when the drug binds to a protein and initiates improper calcium signaling, researchers at Yale School of Medicine reported in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This response leads to side effects such as acute hypersensitivity, slower heart rhythms, tingling, numbness, and other symptoms. These serious side effects limit the drug's effectiveness. Peripheral pain becomes worse with continued use and increased dosages lead to persistent and irreversible pain.

The binding protein is called neuronal calcium sensor (NCS-1). When paclitaxel (taxol) binds to NCS-1, it makes the cell more sensitive to normal signals and increases the magnitude and frequency of changes in calcium. Over time, increased calcium levels activate an enzyme (calpain) that degrades proteins, especially NCS-1. Calcium signals are needed for nerves to be stimulated and to respond and the loss of NCS-1 makes it more difficult to generate any calcium signals. While the loss of NCS-1 stops the protein interaction that is causing the inappropriate calcium signals, it also decreases the ability to have normal responses. (11)


(1) National Cancer Institute

(2) American Journal Clinical Oncology 2002;63:6-15

(3) Am J Oncology Rev 1(3):169-170, '02

(4) J Clin Oncol 21(6): 959-962, '03

(5) Oncol News Int'l, Vol 14, #5, May '05

(6) Cell Function Analysis

(7) Cancer 2003 Jun 15;97(12):2972-7

(8) Breast Cancer Res. 2006;8(4)2006 BioMed Central, Ltd.

(9) Office of Research, Florida State University

(10) Bionumerik

(11) PNAS 104: 11103-11108 June 20, 2007

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Taxol + Carboplatin fails to show clinical advantage over standard regimen (Navelbine) in non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC). According to a multicenter Southwest Oncology Group study (9509), there is no significant differences in survival, response rates or quality of life between standard regimen Navelbine (vinorelbine tartrate) and dose-intense Taxol + Carboplatin treatment arms. Navelbine injection is indicated for first-line treatment of patients with advanced NSCLC. Navelbine is the only single-agent approved by the FDA in 20 years for the treatment of advanced NSCLC.

Taxol appears to increase the risk of lung inflammation (December 2001 Journal of the National Cancer Institute). It is sometimes used along with radiation treatments since it is thought the drug might enhance the radiation's effects. The combination may cause more problems than it solves, like radiation pneumonits. Radiatin pneumonitis is a lung inflammation that occurs from radiation. It may develop about eight weeks after completing a course of radiation. Taxol increases the chance of having this problem. Researchers have found out that this is more common in patients who receive Taxol. Taxol has not been shown to have any clear benefit.

True synergy is rather uncommon in most adult solid tumors. Most drug combinations in diseases such as lung cancer are merely additive, where the whole equals the sum of its parts, and not synergistic. In hematologic neoplasms (leukemia, lymphoma, multiple myeloma), true synergy is very common. In cases where drugs are only additive and not synergistic, nothing is learned by testing the drugs in combination over what is learned by testing them separately. So drugs in combination are only tested in cases where there is the realistic possiblity of seeing true synergy.

Such solid tumor drug combinations as Cyclophosphamide + Doxorubicin or Carboplatin + Taxol are virtually always only additive and not synergistic. Cisplatin plus Etoposide is virtually never synergistic in non-small cell lung cancer, but is synergistic 25% - 50% of the time in small cell lung cancer. Gemcitabine + Cisplatin is very often synergistic. Vinorelbine + Mitomycin c or Mitoxantrone is occasionally synergistic, as is Irinotecan + Cisplatin. The best combinations are those in which there is true synergy and in which the toxicities of the drugs in the combination are non-overlapping, so that full doses of each drug may be given safely.

Is Taxol a natural treatment?

Taxol inhibits the replication (mitosis) of cells. Rapid mitosis is the basis for tumors. Since the discovery of it in 1960, researchers have produced a multitude of drugs that work on the same principle. They target microtubules (a structure used in the division of cells) and stabilizes them to the extent that mitosis is disrupted. Microtubules transport proteins around the cell and are essential for mitosis. When you inhibit the nature of microtubules, this blocks mitosis and the cell essentially commits suicide. This keeps the cancer from growing.

According to the Office of Research, Florida State University, the picture for Taxol wasn't all rosy. As a cancer-fighter, Taxol had some serious drawbacks. For hundreds of cancer patients, the drug simply bounced off their tumors, doing little if any good. It was possible for patients to be resistant to it and develop a tolerance, limiting the drug's ability to fight future occurrences of cancer.

Side-effects were a real headache. Taxol targets the fastest-growing cells, but it isn’t specific to cancer cells. It also kills hair cells and cells in the stomach lining, leading to the hair loss and nausea that are associated with chemotherapy.

The drug wasn't water soluble (it had the solubility of a brick), necessitating a carrier to deliver it to cells. The carrier is toxic as well. Taxol's castor-oil carrier was suspected as the culprit behind much of the misery, which included nausea, vomiting, joint pain, appetite loss, brittle hair and tingling sensations in hands and feet. People soon began to realize that the much ballyhooed drug was no panacea.

Some taxane-induced side effects are so common, and in some instances so severe, that patients and their physicians may delay treatment, reduce the dose or discontinue therapy altogether. While medications designed to prevent or treat nausea, vomiting and decreased white blood cell counts are available, there are currently no treatments for other serious taxane-induced side effects, particularly nerve damage.

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