New pill available for advanced lung cancer patients

PHOTO: New pill available for advanced lung cancer patients

SINGAPORE - Lung cancer patients in Singapore can now opt for a new type of first line treatment in the form of an oral pill, which doctors say is superior to standard chemotherapy treatment.

The pill gefitnib, also known by its trade name IRESSA, provides a genetically targeted treatment which has proven effective against advanced lung cancer cases with EGFR mutation.

The EGFR gene mutation is estimated to be present in 40 per cent of lung cancer patients here, and is more common in Asian patients, non-smokers and women.

The pill, taken once a day, blocks the signaling of a mutated gene, which is the cause of unregulated cell growth leading to cancer tumours.

Compared to chemotherapy, which is a toxic drug cocktail that kills cancer cells, patients taking IRESSA are spared the toxicity and hence the side effects commonly associated with chemotherapy, said Dr Daniel Tan, medical oncologist at the National Cancer Centre.

Patients on the drug also have better response rates, and the disease stays under control for longer than when under chemotherapy, said Dr Gilberto De Lima Lopez, a senior consultant with the Department of Medical Oncology at the John Hopkins Singapore International Medical Centre.

On such success case is 58-year-old retiree Mohamad Yusof Johari, who was diagnosed with cancer in April and has been on IRESSA since then.

Before taking the drug, he was coughing and was losing weight, but now he says he is able to live normally.

He said the effects of the drug kicked in within three weeks of taking it, and he has so far experienced only dry skin and throat ulcers as side effects.

AsiaOne understands that the pill is being sold for $95 to $110 in restructured hospitals, at an average costs of $3,000 a month.

The drug is also covered under the subsidy schemes available for cancer patients, said Dr Tan. According to a local news channel, after MediSave subsidies, a month's worth of the drug would cost about $1,600.

He added that this is equivalent to chemotherapy in terms of out of pocket expenses.

The new treatment was approved by the Health Science Authority in Dec last year, and is currently available in most hospitals and clinics.

Globally, lung cancer accounts for 1.2 million new cases of cancer annually, making it the world's most common cancer.

In Singapore, lung cancer has the highest mortality rate among cancer-caused deaths in men and the second highest for women, said the Singapore Cancer Society (SCS).