Novartis drug to spark revolution in treatment

Novartis, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant, is on the brink of announcing a massive leap in the treatment of cancer. Although the medical world is already excited by the anti-cancer potential of the revolutionary Glivec drug, the Basle-based company is preparing to deliver dramatic new clinical evidence that the technology works in certain tumour cases.

Although the official line of the company is to remain cautiously optimistic on the drug's prospects, sources within the group's oncology (cancer and tumours) research division have indicated that Novartis is ready to deliver extremely good news.

That is expected at the 38th annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, by far the most important cancer-related event of the medical calendar.

At the meeting, to be held in Orlando, Florida, on 18 May, Novartis is expected to unveil the results of testing the treatment on a large number of tumour patients, and the considerable success it has had so far. If the drug makes it through the next stage, Glivec would achieve fame as the first cancer "medicine".

As a drug, Glivec has already enjoyed an extraordinary history. It was originally designed to treat chronic myeloid leukaemia, a condition that affects about 4,500 people a year worldwide, and met with such staggering success and public demand that it reached approval in record time. The usual lengthy process undertaken by the US Food and Drug Administration was vastly accelerated to bring the life-saving drug to market as soon as possible. But later scientists found the same drug could also be used to treat certain solid tumours.

Novartis sources believe the testing has been performed on a large enough cross-section to show that Glivec, in this new function, can go through to the next phase of clinical trials.

In addition to the specific potential benefits of Glivec, its success is expected to spark a revolution in cancer treatments. Glivec is the prototype of a new breed of drugs known as "silver bullets", which aim to target the exact molecule that is causing the mutation.

Glivec is the first of its kind to do so, but pharmaceutical analysts believe it will spawn an entirely new way of approaching medicine development. The success of Glivec will also point to the huge potential unlocked by the mapping of the human genome.

"The most significant thing that has happened is that we now finally know what is happening inside a cell," said Novartis's head of oncology, David Epstein. "I am extremely optimistic."

Present treatments for cancer sufferers involve chemotherapy or radiotherapy, but both have severe side-effects. Glivec, on the other hand, has pointed the way to a new era in which cancer sufferers take a pill that "seeks out" the source of their problem, and eliminates it.