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New drug being tested in the fight to treat mesothelioma

23 April 2015

There is hope for a new treatment for the incurable lung cancer mesothelioma, as a new drug used to help destroy the deadly cancer cells in the lungs is to go on trial in the US in the coming months.

Image courtesy of ponsulak at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The UK based pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca has announced that the US Food and Drug Administration have granted an Orphan Drug Designation (ODD) for the antibody tremelimumab, used to treat the lung cancer mesothelioma.

What is tremelimumab?

Tremelimumab is an antibody that aids the body’s immune system.

White blood cells in the body can recognise and destroy cancer cells, but there is a mechanism within them that interrupts and stops this destruction from happening. Tremelimumab is used to turn off this inbuilt mechanism and allows the white blood cells to carry on destroying cancer cells.

Tremelimumab is used to stimulate patients’ immune systems by binding to them, allowing them to continue to attack dangerous tumours.

Orphan Drug Designation

According to the Orphan Drug Act 1983, an orphan drug is any drug that treats disorders affecting less than 200,000 people in the US. Designation of an orphan drug status gives a pharmaceutical company exclusive rights to sell the drug without competition for seven years.

In their statement about the ODD for tremelimumab, AstraZeneca said:

“There is a significant need for new treatment options for patients with mesothelioma because fewer than 5% of patients currently survive beyond five years, even when they receive timely diagnosis and care. Our aim is to rapidly advance the development of tremelimumab as a potential new treatment option for these patients.”

Tremelimumab is part of the pipeline of assets being developed by AstraZeneca and its biologics research and development arm, MedImmune, which are designed to harness the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. It is a fully human antibody, which stimulates the immune system to destroy cancer cells.

Mesothelioma in the UK

Mesothelioma is an incurable cancer that is most often caused by exposure to asbestos dust and fibres.

Unfortunately, mesothelioma is a rare cancer and affects mostly people of retirement age, so it is often forgotten and attracts very little research funding for drug development.

Figures from the Health and Safety Executive show that more than 2,500 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma in the UK each year and according to the Department for Health and Pensions 53,000 people will die from mesothelioma between 2013 and 2037.

Currently, fewer than 5% of patients diagnosed with mesothelioma live past 5 years from the date of diagnosis, with the majority dying within the first year.

The human trials of tremelimumab in the US could prove to be a significant turning point for the treatment of mesothelioma and other incurable lung cancers around the world, as it could potentially speed up the destruction of damaging cancer cells in patients’ bodies.

If brought to the UK following successful trials, tremelimumab could offer an alternative to other mesothelioma treatments and also be used alongside them. It is, of course, early days but the treatment could make a significant difference to the lifespan of mesothelioma sufferers.

Further reading

Tremelimumab granted Orphan Drug Designation by US FDA for treatment of malignant mesothelioma


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