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Genentech’s Drug, Avastin, Helped Cancer Patients Live Longer, Study Reveals

November 30, 2004

Nov. 30–Genentech’s cancer drug Avastin helped boost survival for patients with colorectal cancer by two months, researchers announced Monday.

While the gains in median survival were modest, the large-scale study sponsored by the National Cancer Institute underscores the effectiveness of the drug in prolonging the lives of some of the sickest patients with one of the deadliest forms of cancer.

The new findings could boost sales of Avastin, which reached $183 million for the quarter ended Sept. 30.

Avastin is the first in a new class of biotech drugs designed to work by cutting off a tumor’s blood supply.

The Food and Drug Administration approved the drug in February on the strength of clinical trials that added Avastin to an older combination of chemotherapy drugs that was standard treatment at the time those studies began. The patients in those earlier, Genentech-sponsored trials had never been treated before and their cancer already had spread to other parts of their bodies.

But by the time Avastin was approved, cancer specialists were prescribing a new mix of chemotherapy that included another new cancer agent, oxaliplatin, sold as Exolatin by Sanofi-Aventis. So it wasn’t clear whether adding Avastin to chemotherapy that included Exolatin would benefit patients.

The new results released Monday show that it does.

Avastin did so in a group of patients who had already failed earlier treatment. In the National Cancer Institute study of 829 patients, the overall median survival for patients receiving Avastin plus chemotherapy was 12.5 months compared with 10.7 months for patients who received chemotherapy alone.

The cancer institute said it released interim results of the study on Monday because of the clear survival benefit of adding Avastin to the treatment. “These results are simply more good news for people with colorectal cancer,” said Dr. Bruce J. Giantonio of the University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center, who headed the study.

Median survival — the time until half of the patients enrolled in the study have died — is only one measure of the effectiveness of a treatment against cancer. The cancer institute also noted that the risk of dying during the study dropped by 26 percent for those treated with Avastin and chemotherapy compared with those who received chemotherapy alone.

“It always makes it easier for the doctor and the patient if you have clinical data that shows life extension,” said Jim McCamant, editor at large of the Medical Technology Stock Letter, which recommends Genentech stock. McCamant does not hold any shares. Some of the patients in the Avastin studies survived well beyond the median, he said, and it’s that hope of long-term survival that will encourage patients to try it.

However, Avastin increases the risk of heart attacks, blood clots and strokes, particularly in older patients with previous histories of those disorders. Deaths due to those complications are included in the overall survival statistics.

A month’s supply of the drug sells for about $4,400.

South San Francisco-based Genentech’s shares rose 3 percent following a brief suspension of trading pending Monday’s announcement. But the stock gave up most of that gain and closed at $49.21, up 49 cents.

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