From the Journals

Few new cancer drugs replace current standards of care



Only about 1 in 7 new cancer drugs approved in the U.S. displace existing standards of care, a new analysis shows.

Of more than 200 agents evaluated, most (42%) received approval as second-, third-, or later-line therapies.

“While there is justified enthusiasm for the high volume of new cancer drug approvals in oncology and malignant hematology, these approvals must be evaluated in the context of their use,” the authors note in a report published online March 15 in JAMA Network Open. Later-line drugs may, for instance, “benefit patients with few alternatives but also add to cost of care and further delay palliative and comfort services” compared to first-line therapies, which may alter “the treatment paradigm for a certain indication.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves several new cancer drugs each month, but it’s not clear how many transform the treatment landscape.

To investigate, David Benjamin, MD, with the Division of Hematology and Oncology, University of California, Irvine, and colleagues evaluated all 207 cancer drugs approved in the U.S. between May 1, 2016 and May 31, 2021.

The researchers found that only 28 drugs (14%) displaced the prior first-line standard of care for an indication.

Examples of these cancer drugs include alectinib for anaplastic lymphoma kinase rearrangement–positive metastatic non–small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), osimertinib for epidermal growth factor receptor exon 19 deletion or exon 21 L858R substitution NSCLC, atezolizumab plus bevacizumab for unresectable or metastatic hepatocellular carcinoma, and cabozantinib for advanced kidney cancer.

A total of 32 drugs (15%) were approved as first-line alternatives or new drugs. These drugs were approved for use in the first-line setting but did not necessarily replace the standard of care at the time of approval or were first-of-their-class therapies.

Examples of these drug approvals include apalutamide for nonmetastatic castrate-resistant prostate cancer, tepotinib for metastatic MET exon 14-skipping NSCLC, and avapritinib for unresectable or metastatic gastrointestinal stromal tumor with platelet-derived growth factor receptor alpha exon 18 variant, including D842V variant.

A total of 61 drugs (29%) were approved as add-on therapies for use in combination with a previously approved therapy or in the adjuvant or maintenance settings. These drugs “can only increase the cost of care,” the study team says.

Most new approvals (n = 86) were for use in second-, third- or later-line settings, often for patients for whom other treatment options had been exhausted.

The authors highlight disparities among approvals based on tumor type. Lung-related tumors received the most approvals (n = 37), followed by genitourinary tumors (n = 28), leukemia (n = 25), lymphoma (n = 22), breast cancer (n = 19), and gastrointestinal cancers (n = 14).

The authors note that cancer drugs considered new standards of care or approved as first-line setting alternatives could “provide market competition and work to lower cancer drug prices.”

The study was funded by a grant from Arnold Ventures.

A version of this article first appeared on

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