Globe highlights targeted cancer drugs from Pfizer, Roche ahead of ASCO

The Boston Globe this morning noted Pfizer's crizotinib and Roche's vemurafenib as two poster children of sorts for drugs developed to target the molecular drivers of cancer growth. And the targeted theme promises to be huge over the next several days at the annual ASCO meeting in Chicago.

The story underscores the potential and limits of such drugs, which can be great if a protein that the drug is supposed to home in on is present in a patient's tumor. An example is Pfizer's experimental lung cancer drug crizotinib, which has provided truly impressive results in patients whose tumors express an anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) gene. But ALK is thought to be a driver in only 3 to 5 percent of the cancers.

Yet drug developers appear to be less concerned about the number of people that can benefit from a drug than whether the drug works in an intended pool of patients. With this in mind, developers have taken measures to orient their R&D groups in a targeted direction, doing such things as requiring biomarker studies to better match experimental compounds with the right patients. If you take a look at our recent report on promising late-stage cancer drugs, you'll find that most of them are in some way targeting specific molecular drivers of tumors.

"I think this is a one-way ticket to how to think about the treatment of cancer patients," Todd Golub, a founding member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, MA, told the Globe. "There's been a major U.S. and international effort put in motion to identify the genetic basis of all human cancers, and the big pharma and biotech companies have done a very significant reorientation of their discovery efforts to align with this way of thinking.''

Patients and developers can be big winners in the targeted drug development game, according to the Globe story. Pfizer is getting an expedited review for crizotinib and could gain the green light to start marketed the drug for lung cancer this year. And patients get treatments that are designed to more specifically address the underlying causes of their cancer than chemotherapy treatments.

- check out the Globe's story

Special Report: 10 promising late-stage cancer drugs