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AstraZeneca and Merck point to progress on early-stage breast cancer

AstraZeneca and Merck’s drug Lynparza could prove an important new tool in the battle to cure early stage breast cancer, after data published ahead of the largest oncology conference of the year showed it significantly reduces recurrence rates for patients with the BRCA genetic mutation.

David Fredrickson, AstraZeneca’s executive vice-president of oncology, said the company’s focus on “earlier and smarter interventions” was helping the drive towards a cure for many types of cancer. The pharmaceutical companies are expected to submit the trial data to regulators for approval for this condition.

The OlympiA study found that taking Lynparza on top of normal treatment — chemotherapy, surgery and sometimes radiotherapy — was estimated to reduce the likelihood of a life-threatening recurrence within three years by 42 per cent. The study will be published in the New England Journal of Medicine and presented at annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) this weekend.

“Overnight, the prognosis for these women goes from not having any therapies specifically targeted to her type of cancer, to having a therapy,” Fredrickson said.

AstraZeneca’s innovation in oncology has helped turn round performance at the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker in recent years. In the first quarter, oncology sales from drugs including Lynparza, Tagrisso, and Imfinzi increased 20 per cent year on year. Merck, the US pharma company, has been a pioneer in immunotherapy — using the immune system to target tumours — with its blockbuster drug Keytruda.

Fredrickson warned that better screening was required, particularly as cancer diagnoses have dropped during the pandemic, to make the most of therapies that work best when given early. In the UK, official figures show cancer diagnoses at stage 1 fell by about a third in the early months of the pandemic, compared to the same period the year before.

“We’ve been very concerned about the collateral damage the pandemic has on new cancer diagnosis and testing rates,” he said.

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Launched in 2014, Lynparza has already shown success treating later stage breast cancer, which has spread and cannot be cured, and ovarian and pancreatic cancer. It is known as a parp inhibitor, targeting a weakness in the cancer’s DNA repair system.

About 15 per cent of breast cancer sufferers are so-called triple negative, with cancers that do not respond to other targeted therapies, and many of these have either of the two BRCA mutations, which affect the body’s ability to suppress tumours.

Andrew Tutt, a professor at the Institute for Cancer Research, who led the steering committee overseeing the trial, said the tests for BRCA mutations were usually used to determine risks for developing cancer. But if this drug is approved for the condition, he said oncologists should be using the diagnostic to select patients right for the medicine.

“This is a completely new way of using cancer genetics in the curative setting,” he said.

Lori J. Pierce, president of the American Society for Clinical Oncology, said the results could have an “important impact” on treatment decisions for this subset of patients.

“OlympiA’s findings highlight the need for genetic testing for BRCA mutations in patients diagnosed with high-risk early-stage breast cancer,” she said.

Also at the ASCO conference, Novartis will share results from a trial using a novel targeted type of radiotherapy, known as radioligand, in metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer, which significantly improved survival rates when combined with normal treatment.

Amgen will share survival data from its cancer drug Lumakras targeting KRAS — previously known as the “undruggable target” — an oncogene master switch that made cells cancerous. Recently, the drug received Food and Drug Administration approval for patients with non-small cell lung cancer with a specific genetic mutation.

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