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AstraZeneca’s Iressa Shows Benefit in Tests on Esophageal Cancer

Sept. 29 (Bloomberg) -- AstraZeneca Plc’s Iressa improved quality of life in a trial on advanced esophageal cancer patients and showed a “modest” benefit in extending the time it took for the disease to worsen compared with a placebo.

Patients who received Iressa, also known as gefitinib, experienced less pain and difficulty in swallowing, the European Society for Medical Oncology said in a statement. Their risk of the disease worsening following treatment was reduced by 21 percent, with a median progression-free survival rate of two weeks longer than those who received the placebo, according to the study, presented to the cancer association today.

The third-phase trial included 450 patients in 51 sites in the U.K. whose disease had progressed after as many as two chemotherapy treatments.

About 50,000 patients in the European Union relapse after chemotherapy, according to the statement. Another study is planned which will analyze the biopsies of 300 patients to find whether there was a common genetic trait among those who benefited most from the treatment.

“If such a benefit can be identified, then given the good tolerance of gefitinib, it could potentially be used in relapsed esophageal cancer,” David Ferry, author of the study and professor of medical oncology at New Cross Hospital in Wolverhampton, England, said in the statement.

Study Sponsors

The study was sponsored by Cancer Research UK, Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre, National Institute for Health Research Cancer Research Network, Oncology Clinical Trials Office and Royal Wolverhampton Hospital NHS Trust.

Esophageal cancer is the eighth most-common cancer worldwide, with an estimated 481,000 people diagnosed in 2008 and 406,000 deaths, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. More than 80 percent of the cases and deaths were in developing countries, the agency said. The cancer is difficult to treat as it’s typically diagnosed at a late stage, according to Cancer Research UK.

Iressa works by blocking the transmission of signals in a gene called the EGFR, or epidermal growth factor receptor, which is located on the surface of cancer cells and encourages tumors to grow. Iressa was approved in Europe in July 2009 for the treatment of metastatic non-small cell lung cancer patients who have an EGFR mutation which makes them respond more acutely to the medicine. In the follow-up study, Ferry will be looking at whether patients who benefited most from Iressa in the esophageal cancer study had the same EGFR mutation.

There is no standard of care for patients whose disease spreads following chemotherapy, though more patients are becoming eligible for a second round of chemotherapy, the study said.

“Hopefully, a biomarker predicting efficacy will be identified to allow the use of gefitinib in esogastric cancer in a personalized fashion,” Jean-Yves Douillard, chairman of the ESMO Educational Committee and not involved in the study, said in the statement. “Considering the present practice however, future studies should have a more active treatment choice than placebo in the control arm.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Allison Connolly in Frankfurt at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Phil Serafino at

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