June 30, 2011
A panel of cancer experts has ruled for a second time that Avastin, the world’s best-selling cancer drug, should no longer be used in breast cancer patients, clearing the way for the government to remove its endorsement from the drug.
The unprecedented vote yesterday by a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel comes less than a year after the same panel reached the same conclusion.
In three unanimous votes, the six members of the FDA oncology drug panel voted that Avastin is ineffective and unsafe and should have its approval for breast cancer withdrawn.
“I think we all wanted Avastin to succeed, but the reality is that these studies did not bear out that hope,’’ said Natalie Compagni-Portis, the lone patient representative on the panel.
The vote is not binding, and FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg will make the final decision. The drug is approved for multiple cancers and will still be available for breast cancer, though most insurers are expected to drop coverage if it loses FDA approval.
The FDA began steps to remove Avastin’s breast cancer approval in December, but the drug maker Roche took the rare step of appealing that decision and lobbied the agency and Congress for a second hearing.
The dramatic, contentious tone of the two-day hearing underscored the difficulty of removing an option for cancer patients, even when backed by scientific evidence.
Immediately after the final vote, patients in the audience erupted in shouts against the FDA and its panelists.
“What do you want us to take? We have nothing else!’’ shouted Christi Turnage of Madison, Miss. Turnage said her cancer has been undetectable for more than two years since starting therapy with Avastin.
A spokesman for the Abigail Alliance, which advocates for patient access to experimental medicine, said the vote should be overruled. “This was a kangaroo court,’’ said Steven Walker, the group’s cofounder.
“There wasn’t one dissenting thought up there, let alone one dissenting vote.’’
Assuming the FDA follows through on the withdrawal, Roche could lose up to $1 billion in revenue for its best-selling product, which generates over $6 billion per year.