Earlier this month, the FDA approved the drug Vitrakvi to treat a wide range of cancers (thyroid, lung, head and neck, and others). New cancer drugs are constantly being developed, but what makes this approval different is that this drug targets cancer cells based on a shared mutation, rather than the tumors' location, allowing for advancement in the field of precision medicine.
The Washington Post reports that Vitrakvi is the second treatment to receive FDA approval for a medication based on a common biomarker found in different types of cancers. Similar to what we're doing at COTA by stratifying patients based on the similarities of their diseases, targeting cancer cells based on a shared mutation enables a higher degree of personalization in cancer care.
It's important to note that this mutation-based treatment should not be confused with a one-size-fits-all cure. Rather, it allows for oncologists to more quickly pinpoint what treatment may be the most effective in treating a specific type of tumor. By specifying a shared mutation, Vitrakvi is also excluding others – this specificity is exactly what helps make the drug effective.
As with any new treatment, there are drawbacks to consider – the mutation targeted by this drug only occurs in less than one percent of most solid tumor types, and is estimated to occur in 2,000-3,000 people a year in the United States. While these numbers are incredibly small when you consider that about 1.7 million patients are diagnosed with cancer each year, the fundamental premise behind how Vitrakvi works could in theory be used to develop similar drugs that target other, more common mutations.
Beyond the functionality of the medication, this approval represents a fundamental shift in how the FDA is approving medications – and it's a shift that should be applauded. The genetic environment – of either cancer patients or cancer cells – is playing an increasing role in how patients are being treated. While genetic tumor testing is an additional expense that is required to determine if Vitrakvi will be effective, it also allows for a better understanding of the patient's unique form of cancer.
The approval of Vitrakvi represents a key step in the effort to increase the number of available treatments for cancer patients. By applying precision medicine to cancer care, we're only beginning to more fully understand how this disease operates and make smarter decisions in how it is treated.