COMMENTS: Kennedy’s Cancer

There was not much to report on the prognosis for Sen Edward Kennedy following Tuesday's headline-grabbing brain cancer diagnosis. All three networks had correspondents cover the photo-op anyway--John Berman on ABC, Jeff Glor on CBS, Robert Bazell on NBC--as he walked out of his hospital in Boston; acknowledged his supporters; traveled to his family's Cape Cod home in Hyannisport; and went sailing. CBS' Bill Whitaker followed up with Keith Black, a neurosurgeon at Cedar Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, who is experimenting with a vaccine for brain cancer patients. ABC had John McKenzie take A Closer Look at the lack of a cure for malignant gliomas, the type of cancer that afflicts the senator: "Only 27% are alive two years after diagnosis."

By coincidence, CBS was in the middle of a three-part series The War on Cancer. In-house physician Jon LaPook teamed up with Business Week magazine to examine the low approval rate of experimental medicines for all sorts of cancer, not just tumors of the brain. Between 1990 and 2006, the Food & Drug Administration approved only 32 new cancer drugs, just 8% of those that went through clinical trials. "We have to be confident that this is a real drug--that it works," was the simple standard the FDA's Richard Pazdur offered to explain the high failure rate.

LaPook's example looked at the biotech firm Antigenics, which conducted a five year clinical trial of Oncophage, a kidney cancer vaccine: "There was no statistical evidence that it helped patients live longer," so the FDA refused to approve it. Then Antigenics massaged the data and isolated a subset of patients in the trial that "seemed to benefit," according to LaPook. That was enough to persuade Russian drug authorities to approve Oncophage for that subset. The stricter FDA insists that a fresh trial be started for just that group, lasting another seven years and costing Antigenics at least $400m. Antigenics decided not to conduct the trial.


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