Alimta®, a new type of cancer treatment being developed by Eli Lilly, is the first mesothelioma treatment to significantly improve the prognosis and ameliorate the symptoms of the disease. The trial, one of the largest against the fatal disease, was presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncologists.
Hilary Calvert, a cancer specialist from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne who took part in the trial, hailed the results as the first significant breakthrough against malignant mesothelioma.
But he said it was unlikely the drug would be a mesothelioma cure, which usually suffocates its victims by destroying the lining of their lungs. "It is very unlikely that it will cure them. What it will do is prolong their life and reduce the chest pain and shortness of breath," Prof Calvert said.
The disease is rare, causing about 10,000 deaths a year worldwide, compared with 125,000 lung cancer deaths in the US alone. But the figure is rising.
The widespread use of asbestos was only banned in Europe and the US in the 1980s, but mesothelioma usually lies dormant for 20-40 years. Once diagnosed, few patients live longer than a year. Some patients in earlier trials of Alimta® were still alive after three years, Prof Calvert said.
Eli Lilly plans to seek US and European approval based on the trial data this year. Approval could be rapid because of the lack of alternative treatments but the launch is likely to be delayed until 2003 due to complications in formulating the treatment. Alimta® works by attacking folic acid - a vitamin that is essential for dividing cancer cells.
Analysts forecast sales of more than $500m a year if Lilly, which controls a 12 per cent share of the $1.6bn lung cancer market, can win approval for other conditions. It has already shown success against pancreatic cancer.
Before asbestos was linked with mesothelioma cancer, it was widely used in construction and shipbuilding for insulation and as a fire retardant. The World Trade Center attacks have raised fears over the health of the survivors. The collapse of the twin towers released a cloud of potentially deadly asbestos fibres. Experts believe even a brief exposure to the dust can be fatal.
Concerns over asbestos liabilities challenge some of corporate America's biggest names and could cost UK insurers billions of pounds following recent court rulings on both sides of the Atlantic.
Lilly shares were up 0.25 per cent at $65.15 in New York yesterday.Sources
David Firn Financial Times 2002 May 21