A drug commonly used to treat skin and lung cancer may also slow the progression of a rare form of ovarian cancer, according to a new study.
The research, which was partly funded by Novartis — the company behind the drug — as well as patient organization Target Ovarian Cancer, was published in the Lancet. The study also found that the medication, known as trametinib, increased the number of patients that responded to treatment for low grade serous epithelial ovarian cancer.
To test trametinib’s ability to treat this form of cancer, researchers conducted a randomized clinical trial consisting of a total of 260 women from the U.S. and the UK. They gave trametinib to 130 women and the current standard care — which includes either hormone therapy or chemotherapy — to the other 130.
Participants, who were aware of which group they were in, were assessed every eight weeks, for the first 15 months of the study, by CT or MRI scan. Participants also completed quality of life questionnaires throughout the study and had further tests conducted on tissue samples.
The team concluded that trametinib achieved better results than standard care, reducing disease progression or death by 52 per cent. The drug slowed cancer progression by 13 months compared to seven months for those who received hormone therapy or chemotherapy. The drug was also associated with a fourfold increase in the number of patients who responded to treatment compared to standard care.
Patients on trametinib reported experiencing fatigue, gastrointestinal issues and skin rashes, symptoms also encountered by patients who have been prescribed the drug for other cancers.
Participants who were prescribed trametinib also experienced a lower quality of life at the 12-week-mark than those receiving standard care but, according to researchers, the differences between groups were minimal at all other points in time.
“These findings represent a step change in the management of this difficult to treat cancer,” said Charlie Gourley, senior author of the study and clinical director of cancer research at UK Edinburgh Centre, University of Edinburgh. “We now need to build on this to provide further improvements in outcome for these patients.”
Around 3,000 Canadian women were diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2021 and 1,950 were expected to have succumbed to the disease, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. The vast majority of these ovarian cancer cases — around 90 per cent — originate in the epithelial cells. Low grade typically means that the cancer cells are well-differentiated and are similar in appearance to normal cells. These cancer cells grow slowly and are less likely to spread but are notoriously difficult to eradicate. Low grade serous epithelial ovarian cancer occurs mostly in younger women and is typically diagnosed in the late stages. Surgery is the most common method of treatment as chemotherapy usually yields a slow response and high rate of relapse.
According to the CEO of Target Ovarian Cancer, another source of funding for the study, trametinib needs to be made widely available as soon as possible. “This is extremely positive news for the ovarian cancer community,” Annwen Jones said. “Low grade serous ovarian cancer disproportionately affects those under the age of 50. Standard treatments are generally less effective for this sub-type and there is a very urgent need to develop new drugs to transform outcomes.
“We are proud to have funded this groundbreaking project in partnership with other major research funders, and it is vital that we now push for trametinib to be made available quickly throughout the U.K.”
Dave Yasvinski is a writer with Healthing.ca