In a good news/bad news development for Roche, a U.K. trial offers hard evidence that the company's cancer treatment Avastin is an effective treatment for wet macular degeneration. That's the good news. The bad, of course, is that the data will spark more debate over Roche's designated WMD drug Lucentis, which costs many times as much.
Up till now, doctors have been using Avastin off-label to treat WMD, despite some attempts by Roche's Genentech unit to quash ophthalmic distribution of the drug--and despite a dearth of clinical data on that use. The company has no incentive to test Avastin for eye use; it's already invested in the clinical study of Lucentis, which costs almost $2,000 per injection compared with $50 or so for an eye-sized dose of Avastin.
Enter the new data, published in the British Medical Journal. "We did this study because many people have been using [Avastin] willy nilly, and we've been worried about whether it is safe and if it works," lead investigator Adnan Tufail told Reuters. "The answer is: absolutely." In fact, the researchers were so convinced that they're recommending Avastin use for WMD in countries where Lucentis isn't affordable or available. "[W]e should use this drug immediately," Tufail said.
Some folks aren't so sure, however. What if Lucentis really is superior, they ask. The U.S. government is funding a head-to-head look at the two drugs, but until the data is in, officials shouldn't encourage Avastin use instead, a BMJ commentary contends. That could come as early as 2011.