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The ‘wonder’ cancer drugs that don’t work

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They are the two major goals of every cancer drug, but almost none of the ‘wonder’ drugs approved by Europe’s drug regulator are achieving either, even after three years of use.

Yet, they are heralded as the next major breakthrough in cancer treatment by the media and cancer support groups – many of which get funding from the pharmaceutical industry – and the forgotten once they win approval.

These failings cast doubt on the initial research that was carried out in order to get the drugs approved in the first place, say researchers from King’s College London.

They took a look at the track record of 48 cancer drugs – heralded as ‘wonder’ and ‘breakthrough’ drugs before their approval – that were approved by the European Medicines Agency between 2009 to 2013.

In truth, almost none of them had much evidence that they could improve survivability or quality of life when they won approval, and there was still little evidence even more than three years after they had been on the market.

This is usually because they are achieving success with what is known as ‘surrogate markers’, which means they achieved the principle aim of reducing tumour size, for instance, usually in a laboratory, but the way a patient was affected wasn’t tracked. Around 57 per cent of the drugs the researchers investigated had won approval on the basis of surrogate markers.

The practice is dangerous and expensive. It’s dangerous because cancer patients are not being given older drugs with some evidence of success and instead being given one of the new ‘wonder’ drugs that aren’t working; the new drugs are usually very expensive, and that means somebody is having to pay for them.

(Source: BMJ, 2017; 359: j4530)

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