More cancer drugs are showing promise at keeping the disease at bay when they're used as maintenance treatments. Rituxan, marketed by Roche's Genentech unit and Biogen Idec (NASDAQ: BIIB), cut the risk of lymphoma relapse by half when used for two years after initial treatment was over. And ongoing use of Celgene's (NASDAQ: CELG) multiple myeloma treatment Revlimid doubled the number of patients whose disease stayed in remission three years after treatment began.
The research is being hailed as more evidence that certain cancers could be more like chronic diseases than terminal illnesses. "This [Rituxan] study suggests lymphoma, like many human cancers, is a chronic disease and increasingly is likely to require chronic therapy to maintain remission," Dr. George Sledge, an Indiana University oncologist and president-elect of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, tells the Wall Street Journal.
Chronic treatment would mean higher sales for drugmakers. In Rituxan's case, Roche has already asked the FDA for a new indication as a maintenance treatment. Deutsche Bank analyst Tim Race tells investors in a note that the Swiss drugmaker could see a half-billion in additional sales if Rituxan is broadly accepted as a maintenance drug. Already, some 70 percent of patients in the U.S. use Rituxan as a maintenance therapy, Citigroup analysts estimate, compared with 10 percent or 15 percent in other countries.