Ahead of the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Chicago at the end of month, Eli Lilly has presented data showing that treatment with the firm’s Alimta given as a maintenance therapy after chemotherapy increases the survival prospects of patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer.

The Phase III study compared the efficacy and safety of Alimta (pemetrexed) versus placebo in 663 patients with stage IIIb/IV NSCLC whose disease had not progressed after four cycles of platinum-based induction chemotherapy. According to the results, patients given Alimta enjoyed a higher level of progression-free survival (4.3 months versus 2.6 months) and pemetrexed patients also achieved better tumour response. Preliminary long-term survival rate was 13 months on Alimta, compared with 10.2 months on placebo.

Lead author Tudor Ciuleanu at the University of Medicine and Pharmacy Iuliu Hatieganu in Romania, said this is “the first study to show that lung cancer patients can benefit from maintenance therapy”. He claimed the fact that “this approach significantly increases the amount of time that patients have before their cancer progresses, without increasing additional side effects, is particularly significant.”

Dr Ciuleanu added that “we recommend giving pemetrexed after a patient completes initial induction therapy, but before cancer progression occurs. This approach affords the greatest chance of killing stray cancer cells before they have a chance to contribute to tumour growth”.

The results are expected to boost sales of Alimta which are already pretty healthy and they rose 32% to $247.2 million in the second quarter. The market opportunity for the drug is substantial, Seamus Fernandez of Leerink Swann Research wrote in a research note and he added that Alimta could be the "sleeper in 2008" at the ASCO meeting.