PITTSBURGH – West Penn Allegheny Health System (WPAHS) physicians are among the first in the nation to treat advanced prostate cancer with Provenge (sipuleucel-T), a breakthrough immunotherapy that uses a patient’s own immune system to fight cancer. West Penn Allegheny Oncology was also the first practice in the Pittsburgh region to begin prescribing the therapy upon its approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in April 2010.
The West Penn Allegheny Oncology Network, WPAHS’s community-based oncology practice, was one of 50 centers chosen to participate in the clinical trial of Provenge that led to its FDA approval. Provenge is the first FDA-approved cancer vaccine, but it does not prevent cancer. It is approved for use in men whose cancer has spread beyond the prostate and who did not benefit from hormonal treatments.
Clinical trials showed that a standard regimen of Provenge extended the lives of these men by an average of four months, compared to men who did not receive the drug, and for some it extended survival for a year or more.
Prostate cancer, which usually strikes older men, is the second-leading cause of cancer-related death in men in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. An estimated 217,730 men will be diagnosed with cancer of the prostate in 2010, and 32,050 will die. The disease strikes African-American men with greater frequency and at least double the mortality rate of other racial and ethnic groups.
“Provenge is a great addition to our arsenal of cancer-fighting treatments, particularly as an alternative therapy for a subset of patients with few other options,” said John Lech, DO, Hematologist/Oncologist, West Penn Allegheny Oncology Network. “Harnessing the immune system to fight prostate cancer is an exciting breakthrough, and we look forward to continuing developments in this new area of research.”
Treatment with Provenge involves removing white blood cells from the patient, and activating their disease-fighting properties with the addition of a protein found in most forms of prostate cancer. The cells are then reinfused back into the patient three days later. The treatment is administered three times at two-week intervals. Almost all men experience some side effects, commonly chills, fatigue, fever, pain and nausea. More serious reactions such as stroke have also been recorded in a small percentage.
The high cost of Provenge may also deter some from pursuing this treatment. Insurance has covered the cost for patients treated so far at both the West Penn Allegheny Oncology Network and Allegheny General Hospital’s Prostate Center.
In a Nov. 17 review, Medicare advisers expressed confidence in the benefits of Provenge, and a final decision on whether Medicare will pay for the drug is expected in March.
“There is a considerable amount of excitement about the availability of this new treatment, and for certain men it indeed represents an advance in our capabilities. It is important to emphasize, however, that Provenge is not appropriate for all men with advanced prostate cancer, and patients need to carefully consider this treatment option in consultation with their doctors and their families,” said Ralph Miller, MD, director of the AGH Prostate Center. “