Monday, December 19, 2011

Top Cancer News Stories of 2011

(posted Dec 23rd, 2011)

Today's is the 40th anniversary of Pres. Nixon's War on Cancer (pbs, wsj).  It must be one of the longest running battles in the US history.  But, now Harold Varmus, Director of the National Cancer Institute, thinks that it is time to change the metaphor: Cancer is neither a single enemy nor a war (wsjblog).  While this "war" has consumed trillions of dollars and changed the face of cancer into a "chronic" and manageable condition, somehow, the word "cancer" did not make it to the top ten searched terms this year.  Google Zeitgeist (US) 2011  lists Steve Jobs and two of Apple's creations, iPhone5 and iPad2 among the top ten.  The rest is showbiz.  Just five years ago, "cancer" was number three on the Google News top searches (see here). 

For those who think about cancer, here are the top cancer news stories of the year 2011


The real princess fulfills the wish of a six-year old cancer patient Diamond Marshall of Calgary whose dream was to meet a real princess (telegraph uk).  Six months later, little Diamond is cancer-free and is home for Christmas (vsstar).


The biggest story this year was Steve Jobs and the awareness his life brought to the difficulty of dealing with pancreatic cancer.  However, people still understand less about pancreatic cancer and its symptoms, than the man himself or his wonderful creations with all things "i".  In January, Michael Douglas, who was diagnosed with Stage IV throat cancer with a walnut-sized tumor said that his cancer was gone (abcnews).  Patients with oropharyngeal cancers at the base of throat and tonsils have 80% survival rate in spite of the fact that throat cancer symptoms are often dismissed as sore throat, and the cancer is often not always diagnosed early.  On the other hand, the same month saw Steve Jobs disclosing worsening pancreatic cancer, his 2008 liver transplant failing, and Apple putting a statement out that he will be taking two years off from work.  Later this year, his death raised questions if earlier surgery or his diet and lifestyle choices would have made a difference in the outcome.

Another tragic news was that of 28 year old Eva Ekvall, 2000 Miss Venezuela and 2001 Miss Universe third runner-up, who succumbed to her two year-long battle with breast cancer on December 10th.  During the last two years, she wrote a book, Fuera de Foco (Out of Focus)about her struggle with advanced breast cancer, with her bald pictures shocking to the country obsessed with female beauty--she became one of the greatest breast cancer advocates in Venezuela.  She had dismissed a lump discovered during pregnancy of her daughter as expected hormonal change in spite of the family history, and she remained bitter about it!  Her advocacy led to increased awareness about breast cancer, breaking the taboo and significantly increasing breast cancer screenings in Venezuela.  Giuliana Rancic, a TV personality from Los Angeles, said this December 8th that she will be undergoing double mastectomy, underscoring how far we are from providing effective options to breast cancer patients (latimes).

Susannah York, famous British screen name from the 60s, died from advanced bone marrow cancer.  Gary Wichard, who's character inspired the movie Jerry Maguire movie, died from pancreatic cancer at age 61.

David Servan-Schreiber, a French neuroscientist and an author of a 2010 bestseller, “Anticancer: A New Way of Life” (2007), died of recurrent brain cancer at the age of 51 on July 4th (nyt obit).  His book which promoted healthy lifestyle and a diet of anticancer products, such as, fresh vegetables, garlic, olive oil, green tea, etc., was translated in 36 languages.

For almost half-a-year Venezuela's Pres. Hugo Chavez was in the news for cancer treatment (of undisclosed type) in Cuba (nyt).


According to the study published in the January issue of journal Lancet, the 9/11 World Trade Center Firefighers have 19% higher chance of getting cancer than their colleagues who were not exposed.  

In March, NIH released a report, Higher cancer risk continues after Chernobyl, showing that even 25 years after the nuclear accident, higher incidence of thyroid cancer is seen in people who consumed radio-contaminated daily products while living as far as 90 miles from the reactor.   This was troubling news for the health policy makers watching the still unfolding and worsening situation at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March.  Also read an editorial in Nature journal, Lessons from the past.  

And, EPA's finding that diesel emissions significantly increase cancer risk (by three-fold over other emissions) reopened political mudfight between environmentalists and industry groups.  National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program finally listed formaldehyde as a carcinogen.  Formaldehyde, used widely in building industry and embalmers, may cause leukemia and nasal cancer.   Formaldehyde is also in cosmetics, and there is a campaign to remove it from personal care products.  

A year-long review of environmental causes of breast cancer failed to reveal any smoking gun, except the lifestyle choices, such as obesity, lack of exercise, smoking and alcohol.  This report was released by Institute of Medicine (IOM) on December 7th at the San Antonio breast cancer meeting (bloomberg).  Smoking also increases women's risk of getting skin cancer.

Sunscreens' skin cancer protection claims are finally coming under FDA scrutiny.  Under new rules passed in June and effective in January 2012, sunscreens have to prove that they block both UVA and UVB radiation, and have SPF of 15 or more to claim skin cancer protection, otherwise they should carry a warning that no protection is offered.


A 22-year long study published in the February 2011 issue of journal Science Translational Medicine, on a tribe where tallest person is just 4 feet (equal to a second grader) made an interesting observation:  These people never get cancer or diabetes (cnn news).  Individuals in this tribe lack receptor for growth hormone and thus, are unable to produce the key second hormone, insulin like growth factor-1 (IGF-1).  Unfortunately, there are no good tricks to manipulate growth hormone or IGF-1 in the general population.  So, right now, it just remains an interesting finding!  Five months later, in the July issue of British journal Lancet was an article with a different twist, that taller women have greater risk of cancer (news), 16% risk increase for every 4 inches beyond the average height of just over 5 feet (162 cm).


In January, Avastin lost FDA approval for breast cancer unleashing a firestorm by patient advocacy groups and doctors.  Avastin was conditionally approved in 2008 with the requirement on completion of clinical trial comparing Avastin with paclitaxel.  The trial data disclosed last month did not show any significant survival difference. Many patients, for whom the drug was a life-saver, face the prospect of insurance coverage being withdrawn and a $8,100 per month and nearly $100,000 a year price tag.  By October, at least three insurers (Blue Shield of Calif., Regence, Excellus and Dakotacare) had dropped Avastin coverage for breast cancer.  In June, FDA panel ruled for the second time, that Avastin is ineffective and unsafe for breast cancer patients, and recommended withdrawal of approval for this indication.

More bad news: Avastin increases death when combined with chemo in colon cancer patients, further flaming the debate about its benefit-to-risk.  This data was published in the February issue of JAMA.  In August, results of C-08 study came out:  Avastin "does not" prevent recurrence of colon cancer in patients who had undergone surgery.  

One bright spot: yesterday (Dec. 22, 2011) EU approved Avastin for patients with newly diagnosed advanced ovarian cancer (reuters, genengnews).


Diabetes drugs keep getting bad rap for increasing cancer risk.  In July 2011, FDA committee recommended against approval of Bristol-Myers and AstraZeneca' dapagliflozin because it might raise the risk of breast and bladder cancer.  Others, in this class of drugs (SGTL2 inhibitors) include canagliflozin (being developed by Johnson & Johnson.)  In September, news came from  the European Association for the Study of Diabetes conference in Lisbon that another class of diabetes drugs (GLP-1 inhibitors) which include, Byetta (Amylin and Eli Lilly) and Victoza (Novo Nordisk) may cause sixfold increase in pancretitis which increases the risk of pancreatic cancer (bloomberg).  This month, Swedish researchers said at the San Antonio breast cancer meeting that Sanofi's one-a-day injectable insulin Lantus doubles cancer risk (bloomberg).

Yesterday, Bristol-Myers Squibb's reported that brivanib failed to improve survival of liver cancer patients in a Phase III trial (bloomberg).  The drug is still being tested in other trials.

Sanofi-Aventis' breast cancer drug BSI-201 showed disappointing results in Phase III trial (bloomberg). BPI-201 (initial development by BiPar Sciences Inc., San Francisco) is a PARP inhibitor which works by interfering with the DNA repair pathways of the tumor cell; the intial results were extremely promising!  The drug was tested in metastatic triple-negative breast cancer patients (those with tumor cells not driven by estrogen receptor, progesterone receptor or HER2 receptor.)

AstraZeneca's zibotentan was dropped when found to not benefit non-metastatic castration resistant prostate cancer patients in a Phase III trial.  AstraZeneca's olaparib also failed to advance to the next stage of clinical trials for ovarian cancer (bloomberg).


Center for Disease Control (CDC) inn Atlanta released a report in March 2011 that the number of cancer survivors have increased by 20% during the six years studied (2001-2007) and continue to increase in this country.  One in twenty people were cancer survivors with a population of 11.7 million in 2007 (later year data are not yet available.)  Across the pond, British Public Accounts Committee in its report, Delivering the Cancer Reform Strategy, said that screening and early diagnosis has lagged in UK causing poor one year cancer survival rates in UK compared to the rest of the Europe.

  • Exemestane, an aromatase inhibitor, is effective in reducing breast cancer risk in postmenupausal women (scidaily).
  • In January, Swiss and French researchers found that breast cancer patients who were on drug Tamoxifen had 87% less risk of dying from lung cancer (second cancer) (webmd).
  • Yervoy (ipilimumab) was approved on March 25, 2011, for the treatment of metastatic melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer (press release).
  • Vandetanib was approved on April 6, 2011 to treat adult patients with late-stage (metastatic) medullary thyroid cancer (press release).
  • Ariad Pharmaceuticals' Ridaforolimus (partnered with Merck) improved survival in patients with metastatic soft-tissue or bone sarcomas (Jan.)
  • Combination pills used for HRT in post-menopausal women have been linkedin to incresed breast and other cancer risk, but a study in April issue of JAMA found that estrogen-only pills lowers cancer risk when used in women who had hysterectomy.   This just adds to more confusion for women everywhere.
  • Vemurafenib (Zelboraf) approved for metastatic melanoma on August 17,2011 (market watch).
  • GlaxoSmithKline's HPV vaccine Ceravix also protects immunized women against anal cancer.  The NIH sponsored study was published in the British journal Lancet Oncology in August 2011.
  • Pfizer's axitinib was overwhelmingly (13-0) recommended for approval by an FDA advisory committee on December 8th for metastatic kidney cancer (wsj).  This news came inspite of questionable survival benefit (bloomberg).
  • Pfizer's MyloTarg for acute myeloid leukemia which was pulled from the market last year for being ineffective in increasing survival may get a second lease.  Pfizer disclosed positive clinical data in patients newly diagnosed with advanced cancer at the ASH meeting early this month (fiercebiotech).
  • The year ended with pertuzumab (Roche) data presented at San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in Dec.
  • 2010 FDA Approvals


  • Amgen bought Biovex for $1 Billion (news).
  • Daiichi Sankyo bought Plexxikon for $805 million (reuters news).  Plexxikon was developing PLK4032 (now approved as vemurafenib for metastatic melanoma) at that time.
  • Teva Pharmaceuticals bought Cepahlon, Inc. for $6.2 Billion (bloomberg news).  Cephalon's pipeline has obatoclax for lung cancer.
  • Affimatrix bought eBioscience for $330 million (fiercebiotech).  Implications for diagnostics.
  • On December 19th, Amgen announced collaboration with Watson Pharmaceuticals to develop generic versions of its biologics that are heading for the patent cliff (forbes).  Why let other "generic" hyenas pick up the kill!


  • Dog can sniff out cancer.
  • Viagra boosts T cells and protects mice in a melanoma model (foxnews).  New Ads on TV soon!!
  • Tasmanian Devil species being decimated by Devil Facial tumor that jumps from one individual to another like a parasite (telegraph uk story). 
  • Coffee drinkers rejoice.  Evidence continues to mount that coffee drinking decreases cancer risk (thecrimson).
  • Martha Nicholas of Mechanicsville, Va., who falsely claimed to be Stage IV cervical cancer patient, and raised thousands of dollars was finally exposed and arrested this month (youtube).
  • Is radioembolism which involved injecting radioactive resin beads a viable anti-cancer strategy.  The radioactive beads are apparently taken up by cancer cells, which... die! (telegraph uk story).
  • Mushroom omelette could cut pancreatic risk (mailonline).


  1. latest on Avastin by @OncLive (12/29/2012)

    Avastin improved progression-free survival in patients with ovarian cancer but was not shown to affect overall survival


  2. I agree with you that cancer is neither a single enemy or a war. And I think that photo of Kate embracing a kid with cancer is really inspiring. I hope sooner or later the medical world would will discover the cure for cancer.
    hospice services

  3. Great stories and they are very inspiring one, cancer is curable with proper medications.
    check out