Drug approvals: Are we in a new age yet?

With all the news of cancer drug shortages and the FDA's controversial decision to withdraw approval of Avastin (bevacizumab) for breast cancer, we are also getting some positive developments. Just recently (on Aug. 26), the FDA granted accelerated approval to Xalkori (crizotinib), the newest member of an emerging generation of "niche" drugs. These are drugs that work in very defined subsets of patients, based on certain biological characteristics. In the case of Xalkori, this is confined to the approximately 3 to 9 percent of patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) who carry a chromosomal translocation that results in overexpression of the ALK protein (anaplastic lymphoma kinase). In fact, the approval of this drug is accompanied by the approval of a gene-based test to detect this translocation in tumor tissue. This approval comes on the heels of the approval of Zelboraf (vemurafenib) just eight days earlier for advanced melanoma, and again, only for the subset who harbor a mutation in the BRAF gene, and also approved with a diagnostic kit called the cobas 4800 BRAF V600 Mutation Test. In this case, the mutation is more common, seen in about half of all melanomas. The big question is whether these two approvals herald the new age of personalized drugs. The now old story of Herceptin that many regard as one of the first targeted therapies, was spread out over 17 years from discovery of the gene to drug approval (or 11 years if you go from the discovery of HER2 amplification in breast cancer). The new generation of drugs is being developed in a just a few years based on our exponentially growing body of data on mutations carried in cancers and new clinical trial designs that rapidly test drugs and verify biomarkers that predict response. Moreover, they seem to be quite effective with a higher percentage of patients responding, but not to the point that permanent cures are expected.One can only hope that we are truly in the new era – and there are several indicators that this is the case. The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) program is one of several worldwide that is collaboratively sequencing tumor genomes. Drug companies are investing more effort into biomarker analyses and integrating them earlier in the clinical trial process. Healthcare reform is demanding that drugs have a larger impact and that they not be used indiscriminately. Finally, the public's expectations are rising – they want more information about their cancers and access to clinical trials. While it is possible that the initial wave of "low-hanging fruit" of "druggable" gene targets will soon be exhausted, it is more likely that we will have more targets and drugs than we can test. The bottleneck will really be in the patient clinical trials and how quickly and widely they can be deployed and fully enrolled. There will still be negative trials and other disappointments, but perhaps we are entering a new era where the bar of success is being raised.