An international team from several institutions including Chinese University has developed a new drug to treat a form of lung cancer which is particularly prevalent among Chinese people. The researchers said it reduces the side effects resulting from chemotherapy, but may not be widely available for some time due to its high cost. Chinese University oncology professor Tony Mok Shu-kam announced the breakthrough alongside UK and US experts after they completed a study of 419 patients, 60 per cent of whom came from Asia, after having previously screened 1,000 people. The new drug is particularly significant for Asians as they are more prone than Westerners to suffer from lung cancer caused by a particular type of gene mutation, Mok said. Cancer doctors embrace drugs that boost immune system to beat disease The Department of Health in Hong Kong approved the use of the new drug this month, but local doctors believe it will take years before it can become first-line treatment in public hospitals as it costs about HK$40,000 per month. “The new medicine has brought new hope to some patients,” Mok said after the research result was presented to the 17th World Conference on Lung Cancer in Austria on December 6. It was published in the New England Journal of Medicine the same day. Lung cancer is the No 1 killer in China, including Hong Kong. There were 4,016 new cases of the disease and 3,893 deaths from it in the city in 2012. Around 50 per cent of Asians have lung cancer caused by the gene mutation, compared to 20 per cent among Western patients. The condition may be treated with oral medicine, but more than half of patients had to resort to chemotherapy after the cancer cells changed to become resistant to the drug. The survival rate for recurrence is low and patients often suffer from side effects caused by chemotherapy, such as hair loss, diarrhoea and vomiting . The new drug, however, had been shown to reduce disease progression by 70 per cent compared with chemotherapy, study lead researcher Professor Vassiliki Papadimitrakopoulou of the University of Texas said. The oral therapy also does not present severe toxicity problems, meaning it prevents side effects arising from chemotherapy. Before the drug was registered in Hong Kong, about 500 local patients were prescribed it under a sponsorship programme by the manufacturer. All of them achieved good results, Mok said. He believed patients would have to fund the whole cost of treatment and urged public hospitals to provide the drug as a first-line medicine. “This drug is really long-awaited by many patients as it can change current practice,” Chinese University oncology associate professor Stephen Chan Lam said. He also urged public hospitals to use it for first-line treatment, but said it may not become available for two to three years owing to its high cost.