Amgen (Nasdaq:AMGN) is among several pharmaceutical companies working on a treatment for pancreatic cancer, the deadly disease that recently felled both Steve Jobs of Apple (Nasdaq:AAPL) and Nobel Prize-winning immunology expert Ralph Steinman.
Amgen is partnered with Japan’s Takeda on development of a drug called ganitumab, which is a monoclonal antibody designed to block a chemical signal that allows tumors to grow unimpeded. The drug targets type 1 insulin-like growth factor receptor (IGF-1R), which is vital to the regulation of cell growth and survival. Amgen researchers hope that by suppressing IGF-1R they can slow the growth of pancreatic cancer tumors and increase overall survival in patients.
Amgen started a Phase III study of ganitumab earlier this year. Results of the 825-patient trial are due in October 2013. The drug also is in earlier stages of testing for a variety of other cancers. In a mid-stage study, patients who received the Amgen medication in addition to standard pancreatic cancer therapy gemcitabine had an overall survival rate of 57% after 6 months, compared to 50% with gemcitabine alone. Gemcitabine was discovered and developed by Eli Lilly (NYSE:LLY), although it is now generic.
About 40,000 cases of pancreatic cancer occur annually in the U.S., and nearly as many people will die of the disease this year. Worldwide, it’s the fourth-most common cause of cancer death. Survival rates are poor: for all stages combined, the one- and 5-year relative survival rates are 25% and 6%, respectively. For locally advanced and for mestatic pancreatic cancer, which accounts for more than 80% of cases, survival is about 10 and 6 months, respectively. Surgery is often not an option for patients with the tumors, given that most cases aren’t discovered early enough, and only about one out of four patients can count on gemcitabine to help their fight against the cancer, according to data from PubMed Health.
Other firms working on superior treatments against this deadly killer include:
• Korea-based developer KAEL-GemVax, with funding from Cancer Research UK. The company has a vaccine, called GV1001, which is currently in late-stage clinical trials at 53 hospitals in the U.K. It is being tested on patients with metastatic pancreatic cancer.
• NewLink Genetics is attempting to harness the immune system to attack pancreatic cancer with a late-stage vaccine called HyperAcute Pancreas cancer immunotherapy. The Ames, Iowa-based developer is conducting a Phase III trial to evaluate its vaccine in approximately 700 Stage I and Stage II prostate cancer patients. NewLink has received FDA Fast Track and Orphan Drug designations for adjuvant treatment of pancreatic cancer after surgeries to remove tumor tissue.
• GlobeImmune, a Louisville, Colo.-based biopharmaceutical firm with a wealth of high-profile investors, is developing a vaccine that targets pancreatic cancer caused by mutated versions of a specific protein.
• Cambridge, Mass.-based Merrimack Pharmaceuticals is testing a formulation of the approved chemo drug irinotecan that is encapsulated in tiny liposomal particles to improve its properties for fighting cancer. In a recent Phase II trial, 40 pancreatic cancer patients on the drug had a median overall survival of 22.4 weeks. And one in 5 survived for more than a year, according to the company.