The next decade should do for prostate cancer what the past one has done for breast cancer
MOST cancers are equal-opportunity killers. Some, though, are perforce sex-specific. Breast cancer is rare in men. And prostate cancer is obviously absent from women. Recent years have seen a plethora of new drugs—starting in 1998 with Herceptin—for treating breast tumours that are threatening to get out of control. No such breakthrough has happened with prostate cancer. Though easily treated if caught early, late-stage prostate cancer is serious and often fatal. But that may be about to change.
Better understanding of the biology of the disease, and particularly of the role of testosterone in promoting it, has stimulated a new era of drug development, reminiscent of the revolution that ushered in Herceptin. These novel treatments, which are now undergoing clinical trials, were one of the main topics of conversation at the Congress of the European Association of Urology, which took place in Paris on February 24th-28th.
Some of the therapies discussed remain conceptual almost to the point of fantasy: a genetically engineered virus that could destroy prostate-cancer cells from within, for example. Several, though, are already available, or are just about to be.
Cabazitaxel, made by Sanofi, a French firm, is one. It is a relative of taxol, a drug used to treat breast and ovarian cancer. It works by preventing the formation of structures called microtubules, which pull the chromosomes apart in dividing cells (such as cancer cells). It was approved for use in 2010 after trials showed that it could prolong the lives of men with late-stage disease. A second drug, abiraterone, made by Johnson & Johnson, an American company, was approved in 2011 after a trial was stopped because it had been so successful that the organisers deemed it unfair on those in the control group that they were not receiving the medicine too.