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The costly war on cancer

Written By krishna on Friday, May 27, 2011 | 2:07 AM

CANCER is not one disease. It is many. Yet oncologists have long used the
same blunt weapons to fight different types of cancer: cut the tumour out,
zap it with radiation or blast it with chemotherapy that kills good cells as
well as bad ones.

New cancer drugs are changing this. Scientists are now attacking specific
mutations that drive specific forms of cancer. A breakthrough came more than
a decade ago when Genentech, a Californian biotech firm, launched a drug
that attacks breast-cancer cells with too much of a certain protein, HER2.
In 2001 Novartis, a Swiss drugmaker, won approval for Gleevec, which treats
chronic myeloid leukaemia by attacking another abnormal protein. Other drugs
take different tacks. Avastin, introduced in America in 2004 by Genentech,
starves tumours by striking the blood vessels that feed them. (Roche,
another Swiss drug giant, bought Genentech and its busy cancer pipeline in

These new drugs sell well. Last year Gleevec grossed $4.3 billion. Roche’s
Herceptin (the HER2 drug) and Avastin did even better: $6 billion and $7.4
billion respectively. Cancer drugs could rescue big drugmakers from a tricky
situation: more than $50 billion-worth of wares will lose patent protection
in the next three years.

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