The New York Times is starting a series of articles on the clinical trials of a recent B-Raf inhibitor (from Plexxikon and Roche, PLX4032). The first installment is an excellent look at what early-stage clinical research is like in this field. For example:
Typically, Phase 1 trials are limited to a few dozen patients and end when the dose reaches the point where side effects like rashes and diarrhea make patients too uncomfortable.
Dr. Flaherty and Dr. Chapman started the first three patients on 200 milligrams per day. After two months with no side effects — and no response — they doubled it.
Two more months passed, still nothing. They gave three more patients 800 milligrams, the equivalent of the dose that made tumors stop growing in mice. Even shrinking tumors, the doctors knew, would not mean the cancer had been cured but might at least offer a reprieve.
Dr. Flaherty pounced on the scans when they arrived. In some patients, tumors had remained the same size. “Maybe we’re starting to see something,” he could not help thinking. But at the next set of scans, the disease had progressed. On conference calls, Dr. Nolop sometimes referred to those patients as “responders.”
“They’re not responders,” Dr. Flaherty gently corrected him: under the accepted definition, tumors had to shrink to qualify patients as responders.
By the time they had doubled the dose four times, Dr. Flaherty could not help wondering if the targeted therapy skeptics were right. Dr. Chapman, crisp and businesslike on the weekly calls, supplied no comfort. He pointed out new research that B-RAF was mutated even in benign moles, and therefore could not be the key driver in melanoma. . .
What everyone involved in this work has to deal with is living between two very different mental states: you have to see people who are dying, and who you will probably not be able to help, even with your best efforts. But it's also possible that the next new thing you try might be the thing that keeps some of them alive. It's a hard place to work.
Back here in early research we don't see the patients, of course (which is good, since I'm pretty sure I couldn't take it). But we also have the same narrow path to walk: most of the compounds we make aren't drug candidates. Most of the drug candidates we send on for development fail. But the answer to that is not to stop making drug candidates, because every so often, something works.