A late-stage trial assessing a combination of Genentech, OSI Pharmaceuticals and Roche’s oncology drugs Tarceva and Avastin in patients with lung cancer was stopped ahead of schedule after it was shown to increase the amount of time patients lived without their disease getting worse.

Avastin (bevacizumab) is a novel drug that works by preventing the growth of blood vessels to cancerous tissues, thereby starving the tumour of nutrients and oxygen. First launched in 2004 in the US, the drug is used as a first-line therapy in several cancers.

Tarceva (erlotinib) is an oral, epidermal growth factor receptor targeted agent that was also first launched in 2004, and according to Roche it has a proven and significant survival and symptom benefit in a broad range of patients with advanced lung cancer, but without the toxic side effects of chemotherapy.

Now, interim results from the ATLAS trial in 1,157 patients with advanced non small-cell lung cancer have shown that a combination of Tarceva and Avastin can significantly extend progression free survival, when given as first-line maintenance treatment after therapy with an Avastin/chemotherapy regimen. In addition, the combo’s safety profile seems consistent with that of the individual products.

According to Roche, the results of the ATLAS trial will be “welcome news for patients and their physicians, as extending the time patients live without their disease advancing is a key treatment aim in lung cancer.” And the results will also be welcomed by the firms given that a trial last year testing the Avastin/Tarceva combination in NSCLC patients failed to show any overall survival benefit.

Lung cancer is Europe’s single biggest cancer killer, with a death toll of over 330,000 in 2006. Most patients with the advanced stage of the disease die within 12 months of diagnosis, and less than 5% survive for five years.