Courageous innovation means looking at things from a different perspective and exploring all the opportunities, however small they may seem at first

Monday, 15 March 2010

Iressa, our lung cancer therapy, is a good example of the benefits of looking at things from a new perspective. When developing Iressa, we trialled the new treatment in a general population of patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), for whom other therapies had stopped working. Sadly, the results showed that Iressa did not significantly increase survival rates overall - but they did show a survival benefit in Asian patients and in patients who had never smoked. So we began to focus on understanding why Iressa worked so well for these groups and not others. We worked with leading lung cancer specialists around the world to apply the most recent research developments in lung cancer biology to determine which tumours are most susceptible to Iressa treatment. In 2004 two independent groups of scientists reported specific gene mutations in lung cancer tumours from several patients who responded very well to Iressa treatment. This discovery helped us to focus our work on collecting and analysing extensive data from our clinical studies in patients whose tumours had such molecular changes. These efforts enabled us to identify the subgroup of patients with lung cancer who consistently benefited most from Iressa treatment . This means that doctors can now apply a personalised approach when prescribing Iressa because they can test patients for this gene mutation and make sure only those most likely to benefit will be given the therapy.

This ’personalised medicine’ approach is completely new in the treatment of lung cancer. And it’s an approach which is good for the patient, good for the doctor and good for the people who pay for healthcare because it allows them to focus on certain patient populations, which may also bring associated cost benefits. Already widely available across Asia for pre-treated patients, Iressa was launched in Europe in 2009 for treatment of advanced NSCLC in patients with mutations.

Our work didn’t stop at launch. In Germany, for example, we are now partnering with the pathologists and doctors to increase the availability of screening and testing programmes.

We have been helping the National Association and Society of Pathologists in Germany to establish a certified screening and testing programme at pathology labs across the country. Increasing the availability of these tests, previously performed with less than 5% of NSCLC patients, means more people can find out if Iressa could be an effective treatment for them. And it’s the most sustainable way forward because the German health service knows it is paying for the medicine that is best for that person.

“A key thing we’ve brought to this partnership is speed,” says Lasse Lehnert, Marketing Director for Oncology in Germany. “Our knowledge of the best methods for identifying patients most likely to benefit from Iressa means we’ve been able to help pathology labs across Germany get certified quickly with the right tests. That means more patients can start benefiting from Iressa straight away. And that’s vital when you’re battling cancer.”

It’s still early days but we will continue to work with the National Pathology Group and laboratories across Germany to help more and more patients get access to the tests.

LabTalk is AstraZeneca’s science-focused blog where you can hear from scientists, researchers and academics discussing novel ideas, research and innovation.

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