Amgen – Breakthrough lung cancer drug comes out of T.O. lab
While there is no cure for cancer yet, the tools for treating the disease are constantly seeing advancements.
One of the most significant in years comes from local biotech giant, Amgen.
The Thousand Oaks-based company received Food and Drug Administration approval in late May for a new lung cancer drug, sotorasib (which will be sold under the name Lumakras) after researchers found it to be more effective and less harmful in treating a very specific type of lung cancer.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of American cancer death, according to a 2019 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Center for Health Statistics. It accounted for nearly one-fourth of all cancer deaths
Unlike chemo therapy, Lumakras targets a specific protein in lung cancer tumors while inducing relatively minimal side effects. This type of cancer had previously been deemed “undruggable,” meaning scientists thought its proteins could not be targeted pharmacologically.
Greg Friberg, vice president and therapeutic area head for oncology global development at Amgen, said the once-a-day oral treatment isn’t suitable for every lung cancer patient—only one in eight tumors has the protein mutation with which sotorasib can interact—but the outlook is positive.
“Over the past three years we’ve lined up almost 800 patients, treated them with this drug, and we can see tumor shrinkage. That represents really the first chapter in what we were trying to accomplish, which was asking if the drug shrinks tumors,” Friberg told the Acorn. “It shrinks around 37% of tumors, and we’re seeing that shrinkage lasting 10 months or more. This is a really great step.”
The protein the drug targets— KRAS—is present in other types of cancers, including colorectal, ovarian and pancreatic, but at much lower rates than in lung cancer, making the new drug a less viable option for treating those diseases.
Long time coming
Friberg said Amgen is “standing on the shoulders of giants” in a breakthrough treatment that is based on 40 years of research from scientists around the globe.
The research behind sotorasib was based on a paper published by a scientist at UC San Francisco that found the protein in certain lung tumors, which is generally very smooth and hard to bond with, could be teased into revealing a groove that scientists were able to use as an entry point for treatment.
The sotorasib breakthrough, Friberg said, is a pivotal step in developing precision treatments for other cancers, although it’s not clear yet what the weapons used to fight the disease will look like.
“The good news here is that we have studied in almost 13 different tumor types the effects of sotorasib, and we have found in colorectal cancer, in endometrial cancer and in pancreatic cancer that we can shrink tumors,” Friberg said.
“These are rarer tumors, and understanding the broader implications are more difficult, but we are going to continue to look there. The next one up at bat will be colorectal cancer, and we’ll have some data out in the second half of this year.”
Amgen will soon bring sotorasib into phase three trials, which places the drug in front of a much larger pool of lung cancer patients to better test its effectiveness.
Friberg said he hopes data from that trial will be available next year.
The progress of the treatment is noteworthy. It took three years to bring the drug to market following sotorasib’s first clinical trials, a relatively short period of time in the world of pharmacological development.
“The Lumakras development program was a race against cancer for Amgen’s scientists and clinical trial investigators who together have now successfully delivered this new medicine to patients in less than three years—from first patient dosed to U.S. regulatory approval,” said David Reese, executive vice president of research and development at Amgen
The idea of cancer treatment conjures images of hair loss, nausea, loss of appetite and fatigue. Patients taking sotorasib may experience nausea and vomiting, but Friberg said the side effects are less onerous that those of chemotherapy.
“About 7% of patients have to stop taking the drug at some point because of a side effect. That compares quite favorably to other drugs like chemotherapies that have much higher, 30 or 40%, discontinuation rates,” Friberg said.
“We’ll hope it’ll help them live longer lives . . . but also better lives, lived on their own terms rather than being victims of the side effects of their treatment.”
Hope for patients with all forms of the disease—no matter which treatment option they choose—always lies on the horizon.
Eileen Zhang, a ninth-grader at Newbury Park High School was in third grade when she was told that her mother had cancer. Six years later her mother is free of the disease.
“To all those who are experiencing such stress and unease, I want to share with them the lessons that I learned from my own experience—lessons that I will remember for the years to come,” Eileen wrote in a recent student essay contest hosted by Cancer Support Community of Thousand Oaks.
“I want them to know that positivity can go a long way. . . . I want them to know that no matter how bad it gets, no matter how dark the night or how wild the storm, nothing lasts forever, and there is always hope in front of them,” the student said.
Amgen’s lung cancer drug isn’t a final destination, Friberg said, only another step on the road toward beating the disease once and for all.
“These accomplishments are never one person’s alone, so looking at that one and all the work that came before it, that’s what the accomplishment is built on,” Friberg said. “I’d say that work in particular is one worth highlighting in terms of a tipping point.”