Drug Approved to Treat Asbestos-Linked Cancer

WASHINGTON – The Food and Drug Administration yesterday approved the first drug for treatment of a rare asbestos-related cancer.

The drug Alimta, known chemically as pemetraxed, is to be used in combination with the older cancer medicine cisplatin to treat malignant pleural mesothelioma.

Only about 2,000 new cases a year are diagnosed of this cancer, which occurs in the mesothelium, a membrane that covers and protects most of the internal organs of the body. This form of cancer is usually associated with asbestos exposure. Asbestos fibers lodged in the lung attach to the outer lung lining and chest wall, causing tumors to grow.

By the time symptoms appear, the disease is usually advanced, and patients live, on average, nine to 13 months after diagnosis.

In a study comparing the Alimta-cisplatin combination with treatment using cisplatin alone, patients receiving the new drug combination lived, on average, three months longer, the FDA said.

Alimta must be administered with Vitamin B-12 and folic-acid supplementation to decrease side effects, the agency cautioned. The most common side effects are typical of other cancer therapies, including low white-blood-cell count, nausea, fatigue and diarrhea.

Alimta will be distributed by Eli Lilly & Co. of Indianapolis.

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