NEW ORLEANS -- Seven patients in one study. Thirty people in another.
Compared with the 550,000 Americans who die every year from cancer, the number of patients who benefit from experimental drugs in early trials may not seem very large. Yet these lives are, to cancer specialists, a vision of the future.
''Cures are still a ways off, but we're keeping people alive,'' says George Demetri of Harvard Medical School.
Demetri is one of more than 26,000 scientists sharing research this week at the annual conference here of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
Demetri and his colleagues studied a rare gastrointestinal tumor, called GIST, that affects a few thousand patients a year. But he says their findings about the way tumors operate might some day be applied to a variety of cancers.
''We can literally take this disease apart,'' says Demetri, who presented findings about a drug that counters a specific genetic mutation. ''We can crack the DNA code. We can understand this tumor on a molecular level. This is a sign of things to come.''
Armed with greater understanding of the molecular structures of cells -- and with the ability to quickly sequence huge numbers of genes -- cancer researchers are poised to make great strides in the next few years, Demetri said.
Scientists presented a number of key advances at the conference:
* Lung cancer. The experimental drug Tarceva improves survival for patients with advanced, hard-to-treat lung cancer by more than 40%. Patients in the study had cancers that were advancing in spite of being treated with one or two rounds of chemotherapy. About 30% of those taking Tarceva were alive after one year, compared with about 20% of those who didn't get the drug.
* Head and neck cancers. Combining radiation and the drug Erbitux, which was approved in February to treat advanced colorectal cancer, nearly doubled survival in patients with head and neck cancers that had not spread to other parts of the body, a study showed.
* Brain tumors. Genetic mutations might predict which patients live longer and which cancers might grow fastest. University of Calgary researchers found that patients with a type of tumor called gliomas live longer if their tumors have mutations on two chromosomes.
And scientists at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Minnesota discovered why some brain tumors are far deadlier than others that look identical under a microscope. Patients whose tumors have high levels of an abnormal protein that influences cell growth lived 7.2 months in the study, while patients with low levels survived almost three years.
* Genes. In a new field called ''pharmacogenomics,'' doctors hope to use genetic patterns to predict who will benefit from drugs and who might develop dangerous side effects. Demetri says doctors might one day be able to select cancer drugs with the same precision with which they now prescribe antibiotics to fight particular bacteria. In the process, he said, cancer therapy may become more effective and humane.
''We've just been scratching the surface,'' Demetri says. ''We're evolving from treatment that was somewhat Neanderthal in its brutality to something more gentle, to something almost normal.''
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