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Cancer drug may herald a new era

Associated Press / August 31, 2011

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TRENTON, N.J. - Pfizer Inc.’s drug Xalkori, the first new medicine in more than six years for lung cancer, proves the value of precisely targeting rare diseases linked to gene variants, cancer specialists and Pfizer executives said yesterday.

The drug was approved Friday. It epitomizes a new strategy of developing very expensive but effective medicines for relatively few patients to replace the blockbusters for the masses, which are facing competition from generic drugs.

It’s also in the vanguard of personalized medicine, in which doctors identify patients with gene changes or variations that fuel their disease and try to match them with new medicines that target those genes.

“This is a paradigm shift,’’ Dr. Paul A. Bunn Jr., a University of Colorado researcher involved in testing Xalkori, told journalists.

Xalkori was approved for the 4 percent of patients with advanced non-small-cell lung cancer who have the ALK fusion gene. About 6,000 Americans a year develop this cancer, Pfizer said. Those patients, called ALK positive, now can be identified with a $250 molecular diagnostic test developed by Pfizer’s partner, Abbott Molecular Oncology.