At the moment abiraterone is only used in Britain as a ‘last line of defence’ in men whose cancers have become resistant to every other form of treatment, including chemotherapy.
But a new study has just been published showing the drug is even better at fighting advanced prostate cancer earlier in the course of the disease, before major symptoms have started to develop.
Professor Johann de Bono, of The Institute for Cancer Research in London, said results of the trial were “really spectacular”.
He said: “We have just published new data in the New England Journal of Medicine, showing that this drug is really spectacular pre-chemo.
“This is a great thing, because it will double or treble the number of patients getting it. They will also be on it for a longer time.”
The trial found men who had not had chemotherapy went for 16.5 months before their tumours grew further, compared with 8.3 months among ‘pre-chemo’ patients given a dummy pill.
Not only did it stall the disease, it also meant men suffered less pain, Prof de Bono emphasised.
“It’s not only living longer, it’s living better,” he said.
Al-Megrahi, who died in May aged 60, is understood to have received abiraterone after being flown home to Libya following his release on “compassionate grounds” by the Scottish government in August 2009. Shortly before his release doctors said it was “likely” he would die within three months.
Every year some 40,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer, although many live for years without it spreading beyond the organ. It kills some 10,000 men annually.
In May the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) finally gave the green light for NHS prescription of abiraterone in patients who were no longer responding to chemotherapy.
The drug watchdog’s decision only came after a fight with prostate cancer charities, who lobbied hard for it. Abiraterone, marketed as Zytiga by Johnson & Johnson, is thought to cost about £3,000 a month.
Dr Sarah Cant, from Prostate Cancer UK, said: “It is extremely promising to see the results of a trial confirming what we had already hoped - that abiraterone can also have a significant benefit to those yet to receive chemotherapy.
“However, it must be remembered that it will still be some time before abiraterone is likely to be licensed and approved for use on the NHS in this new setting.”
By Stephen Adams