In colon cancer drug study, more wasn't better

NEW YORK—Doctors thought that combining two newer drugs that more precisely attack cancer would help people with advanced colon cancer. Instead, it made the cancer worse and made the patients more miserable, a study found.

NEW YORK—Doctors thought that combining two newer drugs that more precisely attack cancer would help people with advanced colon cancer. Instead, it made the cancer worse and made the patients more miserable, a study found.

The surprising findings underscore the importance of doing rigorous studies before rushing to mix these pricey, new-generation drugs, the Dutch researchers and other experts said. The doctors tried combining Erbitux and Avastin because lab tests and an earlier small study had shown promising results.

“This will stand out as a warning,” said Dr. Cornelis Punt, the study’s leader. “You have to do the randomized studies to see what really happens.”

For the study, Eli Lilly & Co.’s Erbitux was added to standard treatment, which includes Genentech Inc.’s Avastin. Since both are “targeted” drugs and attack tumors in different ways, the thinking was that the combo would do a better job of keeping the cancer from growing.

But the results show “more is not always better,” said Dr. Robert Mayer, of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. He wrote an editorial published with the study in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine.

What makes the results even more compelling, Mayer said, is that another similar study reached the same conclusion. That study, released in December, tested another targeted drug that works the same way as Erbitux.

“This is the first time we’ve seen harm by combining targeted therapies, and it tells us we need to be cautious,” said Dr. Jordan Berlin, a gastrointestinal cancer specialist at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, Tenn. Berlin, who had no role in the research, stressed that the drugs do help patients, just not when given together.

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