December 17, 2010

FDA Moves to Revoke Approval of Popular Breast Cancer Drug

The FDA has begun the extraordinary process to revoke approval of the use of the popular drug Avastin to treat advanced breast cancer.

Avastin had received accelerated approval in 2008, but further studies have not shown that the drug improves either overall survival rate or quality of life.

Andrew Pollack of The New York Times notes that the approval is not without some controvery — as “various breast cancer patients and some patient advocacy groups have urged the F.D.A. to keep the drug approved and not deny patients a chance at what they say could be a life-saving therapy.”

Pollack also notes the financial stake the drugmaker Roche has in the drug: “Avastin is the world’s best-selling cancer drug, with annual sales of about $6 billion. Analysts have estimated that revocation of the breast cancer approval could cost Roche $500 million a year or more in lost sales.”

Some Republicans in Congress, moreover, have tried to portray the potential revocation as “an attempt at cost control, the beginning of rationing under the new health care law,” even though the FDA’s actions are part of the system set up in the 1990s to evaluate drugs that have received accelerated approval.

Breast Cancer Action, whose opinion we trust more than Republicans’ when it comes to advocating for the best interests of women, opposed Avastin’s original approval of the drug and sent a letter to the FDA this past July recommending approval be revoked. As BCA Program Manager Kimberly Irish noted in an e-mail concerning the latest news, the FDA’s decision is a matter of medical justice:

In 2007, BCA was the only breast cancer organization to actively oppose the use of Avastin for metastatic breast cancer patients because of its failure to improve overall survival or quality of life, its side effects and its high price tag. We applaud the FDA for recommending that Roche’s request for full approval of Avastin for advanced breast cancer treatment be denied.

The interests of patients must come before the profits of companies manufacturing the treatments. We need to continue to demand better drugs for people with metastatic disease. We have a long way to go to end this epidemic but the FDA’s decision to put patient needs before drug company profits is at least a step in the right direction.


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