Roundup: No-nukes cancer treatment, E. coli vaccines, ovarian-tissue banking, more

gr_zevalin_small.gifNo nukes in lymphoma treatment – Two innovative biotech drugs that target tumor cells for destruction by tiny radioactive particles are struggling in the marketplace, in part because cancer doctors are simply too specialized to make proper use of them. The drugs — Zevalin (pictured at left), from Biogen Idec, and Bexxar, now produced by GlaxoSmithKline — consist of bioengineered antibodies that carry fragments of radioactive material directly to lymphoma tumors in the bloodstream, where the localized radiation can kill cancer cells with fewer side effects than traditional radiation or chemotherapy.

Although both drugs seem to work well, fewer than 10 percent of eligible lymphoma patients receive either one, the AP reports. One main reason: Oncologists don’t usually work with radioactive materials, and so must send patients to nuclear-medicine specialists instead, something many are loathe to do. Demand for the drugs is so anemic that Biogen Idec announced in December that it will try to sell off Zevalin to another company. It’s an interesting tale of how some innovations can fall completely flat when they don’t neatly fit modern medicine’s specializations.

Vaccinating infants — or cows — for E. coli – Those are two possible steps that might protect people from food poisoning by the bacterium Escherichia coli, which was responsible for two major outbreaks last fall, one involving bagged spinach and the other contaminated lettuce served in chain tacos. At the moment, doctors have few options for treating E. coli-related illness, but have begun considering ways to vaccinate children against the bug and to test possible therapies. Canada last year approved an agricultural vaccine for cows that can limit, but not eliminate, E. coli in the animal’s manure. (Cows and their waste are the primary source of the microbe.) The NYT has the story.

New eggs from old ovaries – In a fascinating fertility-medicine development, women can now have small strips of their ovaries frozen, then thawed and re-implanted years later to produce youthful-seeming eggs — even if they have already reached menopause. The technique is most commonly used when medical treatments such as chemotherapy threaten a woman’s fertility, although some women simply hope to improve their odds of bearing children in later years. Check out the WSJ story here.

Ballooning costs of biotech drugs – In five years, biotechnology treatments could account for a full quarter of all prescription-drug spending, according to a study by pharmacy-benefits manager Express Scripts. Spending on biotech drugs is rising far more quickly than for traditional pharmaceuticals, largely because many biotech drugs tend to be vastly more expensive, imposing costs that can range into the tens of thousands — or even hundreds of thousands — of dollars per year. Overall spending on biotech drugs rose 21 percent in 2006, compared to a 5.9 percent increase for traditional pills. By 2010, the company predicts, biotech drug spending will rise to $99 billion and will account for 26 percent of all drug costs, almost double the $54 billion spent in 2006. New drugs for cancer, arthritis and other inflammatory conditions are expected to account for the bulk of that growth. (Hat tip: Reuters, via the San Diego Union-Tribune.)

Additional signs of life among early-stage biotechs – Solace Pharmaceuticals today said it raised $15 million in an early venture round, providing further evidence that investors’ interest in younger biotechs may be perking up. The Boston-based company is developing new pain treatments; its investors include Polaris Venture Partners and InterWest Partners.

Doctors and sales reps, entangled again – A federal court struck down a New Hampshire law that barred the sale of physicians’ prescribing patterns to drug companies, information that drug reps use to tailor their approach to particular doctors. According to the NYT account, the decision may impact several other states that have considered similar laws. Separately, the NYT reports that some doctors are starting to just say no to free drug samples.

Prospects for “biogeneric” legislation may be dimming – Several reports suggest that momentum behind the push to allow cheap generic-style competitors to expensive biotech drugs is slowing, largely because the Senate failed to include the bill in a package of proposed laws that include various FDA reforms and renewal of the program under which drug-industry fees help pay for drug approvals. The biogenerics bill may still move separately, but the conventional wisdom seems to be that its odds were much better as part of the FDA package. The NYT has more on that FDA-reform package here.