Shares in Roche were on the rise yesterday as investors welcomed news that its flagship cancer drug Avastin showed strong promise in a Phase III trial in women with advanced ovarian cancer.

The Swiss drugmaker said the late-stage trial, data from which will be presented at the 2010 American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in June, showed that a combination of Avastin (bevacizumab) and chemotherapy followed by maintenance therapy with its drug boosted progression free survival in women with the disease compared to chemotherapy alone.

“We are greatly encouraged by these results which suggest that Avastin could offer women with advanced ovarian cancer more time without their disease worsening,” said Pascal Soriot, chief operating office of Roche’s Pharmaceutical Division, and added that the firm is committed to “working with the relevant health authorities to make Avastin available to patients”.

Ovarian cancer is the sixth most commonly diagnosed cancer worldwide, with 230,000 women diagnosed with the disease and 140,000 losing their lives to it every year. An approval in this indication would add significant weight to sales of the drug – which is already a blockbuster and Roche’s biggest earner - particularly as treatment options for ovarian cancer remain limited with just surgery and chemotherapy currently on offer, highlighting the urgent need for new and effective therapies to improve patients’ prognoses.

Avastin, which prevents the formation of blood vessels to the tumour, thereby starving the cancer of oxygen and nutrients essential for growth and spread, won its first regulatory green light in the US in 2004 for the treatment of advanced colorectal cancer, and following a stream of approvals in other indications has since become “a fundamental pillar of cancer treatment today”, according to Roche.

But news of its success in ovarian cancer comes just a breath after the Basel-headquartered firm’s US subsidiary Genentech reported that Avastin missed its primary endpoint in a Phase III trial with patients with stomach cancer, in that it failed to show a significant survival benefit to this group of patients.