New Hope for Patients with Rare Cancer

Sunitinib was effective against thymic carcinomas that did not respond to previous chemotherapy

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) A kidney cancer medication might have found its true calling: fighting thymic cancer.

In a recent study, the medication sunitinib (Sutent) was shown to help patients with thymic carcinomas who were unsuccessfully treated with chemotherapy.

Thymic carcinomas and thymomas are both types of thymic cancer, a rare type of cancer.  Thymic carcinomas are more aggressive, with a five-year survival rate of only 30 to 50 percent. In both types, the primary treatment is surgery, but chemotherapy is often given as a secondary treatment.

Chemotherapy is a type of treatment that uses medication to kill cancer cells throughout the body. It is often used after surgery to kill lingering cancer cells. In cases of thymic cancer where chemotherapy has failed, there is not a clear second treatment option.

In patients treated with sunitinib, "Disease control was achieved in over 90 percent of patients tested," said senior study author Giuseppe Giaccone, MD, PhD, associate director for clinical research at Georgetown University's Lombardi Cancer Center in Washington, DC, in a press release. "This represents a significant advance in the care of these patients. More than half of the 24 patients who participated had failed two or more prior treatments."

Sunitinib is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of kidney and other cancers. It functions by inhibiting several receptors on the cell surface. These receptors signal for cell growth and spread. When sunitinib blocks these receptors, it slows the tumor growth process.

Because thymic tumors might also rely on these receptors, it was thought that sunitinib could be effective in treating thymus cancer, too. The thymus is a gland found in the lower neck behind the breastbone.

Twenty-four patients with thymic carcinoma and 16 patients with thymoma participated in this study. One or more cancer treatment options had not worked for these patients.

This study found that 26 percent of patients with thymic carcinoma showed improvement, and 65 percent showed stable disease (tumors stopped getting worse) after treatment. Any case where the progression of the disease was halted or reversed was considered successful disease control. The effects against thymomas were not as robust, however.

This study provided the first data for the use of sunitinib in thymic cancer. It may offer a new hope to those with no other treatment options available, Dr. Giaccone and team said.

This study was published online Jan. 12 in The Lancet Oncology.

It was funded by the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Therapy Evaluation Program and its Intramural Research Program. Sunitinib was provided by Pfizer and distributed by the Cancer Therapy Evaluation Program. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
January 12, 2015
Last Updated:
January 13, 2015