Well, the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting is almost upon us, and it's time for the annual blizzard of misinformation. I'm not talking about the presentations at the meeting, which are no better or worse than the usual scientific meeting. No, I mean the press releases and subsequent press reports, of which the Reuters item I'm going to highlight today is a depressingly good example.
The headline reads "Big Pharma Expected to Dominate Key Cancer Meeting", which isn't such a good start. Any time you see the industry being divided up into "Big Pharma" and "Biotech", as this piece does, an alarm bell should go off in your head. We need to get clear on what "biotech" means, or dump the term altogether. I'm in favor of the second choice, although that's not going to happen, because all the categories are mixed up, anyway. The tiny-DNA-and-protein versus big-chemical-drug storyline doesn't work so well these days. If Genentech and Amgen aren't Big Something, I'd like to know who is. And on the other end of the scale, was Sugen a "biotech" because they were small (even though they make small organic molecules instead of protein-based drugs?) How about Vertex, or OSI?
My favorite part of the article is this one:
Big pharma's interest in cancer comes about five years after Novartis' launch of the targeted leukemia drug Gleevec.
Gleevec was initially expected to be a niche product, but its effectiveness and benign side-effect profile led to sales last year of $2.2 billion.
Let's take those in order. "Big Pharma's interest in cancer" has, in fact, been pretty constant. It's our success that comes in fits and starts. The article would makes it seem as if we can turn on the clinical research tap at will - when we finally get around to it, anyway. But there are no sudden waves of interest that show up in clinical research meetings - you're seeing the end result of decisions taken eight or ten years ago. When do you think we started the projects that are now being presented at ASCO, anyway?
And as for Gleevec, which is a fine drug that does well by its small intended patient population, let me say (again) that I think that a good amount of it is being wasted. There are, to the best of my knowledge, not enough people with GIST or CML (the two cancers that it's been approved to treat) to account for its sales, not even nearly enough. Gleevec was indeed expected to be a niche product. In terms of the people it can effectively treat, it still is.
It's not for lack of trying. Here are a few attempts from just the last few months: endocrine tumors, renal cell carcinoma, metastatic melanoma, germ cell tumors, refractory myeloma, and advanced hepatocellular carcinoma. In some types of tumor, Gleevec may actually make things worse.
Again, I'm not going off on Gleevec because it's a bad drug,. It isn't. It's pretty typical of what we have to offer these days in cancer: very good effects in a small number of people, some help for a slightly larger number, and nothing much for most. Talk of a "benign side effect profile" is ridiculous for many of the newer agents, because they can only be considered benign with compared to the old ones, which were toxicologically the scourge of the earth. Compared to cisplatin, sure we look good. Who doesn't?
There were surely be more of this kind of thing over the next few days. My advice is to ignore the cancer news until things calm down a bit and we can get a better read on what's really happening. There's going to be too much dust in the air for that this weekend.