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Re-Introducing Iressa


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Pills for lung cancer patients

By April Chong

A DAILY oral tablet works just as well as chemotherapy in first-line treatment for advanced lung cancer patients who are Asian and non-smokers, recent studies have revealed.

Previously, the pill Iressa was already known to work on Asians, women and non-smokers afflicted with a type of lung cancer called adenocarcinoma, and whose disease had progressed despite chemotherapy.

But the latest findings involving 1,200 non-smoker or light-smoker patients in Asia are opening up another option for those who would rather just pop a pill and not have to face the side effects of chemotherapy.

Granted that Iressa may induce rashes and diarrhoea, this seems to be more palatable than the nausea, weakness and hair loss brought about by chemotherapy.

The newest findings are significant for terminal-stage lung cancer patients here, of which a third are non-smokers, said Dr Lim Hong Liang, who is a senior consultant medical oncologist at the Parkway Cancer Centre.

Its side-effects are better tolerated, thus improving the quality of life.

'It also allows us to treat more patients, especially the frail or elderly who do not wish to consider chemotherapy,' he said.

Fifty-three-year-old Low Moh, diagnosed with terminal-stage lung cancer in July last year, was just given months to live.

After six sessions of chemotherapy last year, the non-smoker's cancer continued to progress and he switched to taking Iressa, which he has been on for a year.

Mr Low's cancer is still in check and he continues to run his business everyday.

'I have pimples and dry skin from the drug but this is more tolerable than the loss of appetite, weakness and hair loss during chemotherapy,' he said.

Iressa was introduced here in 2003 but has traditionally only been used after chemotherapy fails. The cost of using the pill daily - at slightly more than $100 a pop - is equivalent to the cost of chemotherapy over the same period of time.

With the recent study, Iressa can now be an option for non-smoker patients as it is comparable to chemotherapy with the same progression-free survival (meaning cancer does not progress, there is no cure, treatment only prolongs life), said Dr Toh Chee Keong, consultant at the medical oncology department at the National Cancer Centre Singapore.

According to the World Health Organisation, lung cancer is the top cancer killer in the world, with 1.4 million deaths a year. It claims about 1000 lives here annually.

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