Panel recommends that FDA remove approval of Avastin for breast cancer
GAITHERSBURG, Md. — A panel of cancer experts said Tuesday that the government should remove its endorsement of Roche’s drug Avastin for breast cancer, after follow-up studies failed to show benefits for patients.
A Food and Drug Administration panel voted 12-1 for removing the drug’s approval for use against breast cancer alongside chemotherapy.
The FDA is not required to follow the advice of its panel, though it often does.
The negative vote is the first major setback for a blockbuster cancer drug that has racked up approvals for a half-dozen forms of the disease. Avastin is also approved for colon, lung, kidney and brain cancer. The panel’s ruling only pertains to its use for breast cancer.
Roche scientists argued Tuesday that patients taking Avastin experience improved quality of life as tumor growth and other symptoms are delayed, but panelists were not convinced.
“The study shows there’s very little benefit to patients, with significant toxicity risks and no clear survival benefit,” said Natalie Compagni Portis, the panel’s patient representative.
A spokeswoman for Roche’s Genentech unit said the company will continue discussions with the agency.
“Avastin should be an option for patients with this incurable disease,” Charlotte Arnold said in a statement.
Even if the FDA withdraws the drug’s approval for breast cancer, doctors will have the option to prescribe the drug “off-label.” However, medical societies and hospitals tend to follow FDA guidance, influencing prescribing patterns for thousands of U.S. physicians.
Avastin was Roche’s top-selling cancer drug last year, with sales of $5.9 billion.
The FDA approved Avastin for breast cancer patients in 2008 based on a trial showing that it extended the amount of time until the disease worsened by more than five months. The decision was considered controversial by some cancer doctors because the drug had not been shown to extend patients’ lives.
As a condition of approval, Roche was required to conduct follow-up studies to demonstrate the benefits of adding Avastin to conventional chemotherapy. But two studies the Swiss drugmaker recently submitted did not show the same delay in cancer progression as earlier studies. Additionally, patients taking Avastin did not show a significant improvement in life span, the gold standard of cancer treatment effectiveness.
Panelists said they worried that the drug could do more harm than good because of such side effects as high blood pressure, fatigue and abnormal levels of white blood cells.
“I think the burden of proof is that a drug is helpful, not that it doesn’t make patients worse,” said the panel’s chairman, Dr. Wyndham Wilson of the National Cancer Institute. “We have definitive evidence that Avastin causes harmful side effects, and we’ve now seen a number of well-done studies that show no advantage to life span.” Avastin was the first drug approved to fight cancer by stopping nutrients from reaching tumors. Such “targeted therapies” were thought to hold promise for eliminating chemotherapy, but the two approaches are now used in combination.
Breast cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death among U.S. women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year more than 40,000 deaths in the U.S. were attributed to the disease.