Doctors, analysts welcome supplement for cancer patients

By CARRIE SPENCER, Associated Press Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - A cancer patient could eat two tins of sardines a day to get enough of an oil that might help prevent severe weight and muscle loss -- or drink a pint of vanilla shake.
Ross Products, maker of baby formula and adult protein drinks, is betting that hundreds of thousands of patients will choose the second option.
Analysts say the supplement ProSure could boost the Abbott Laboratories division's steady but unspectacular sales. Doctors say similar supplements are part of a new wave in helping people feel better while fighting cancer by targeting the underlying causes of side effects such as wasting.
"I really think we're getting into a new era. It's an exciting era," said Dr. Mellar Davis, a research director at Cleveland Clinic responsible for finding ways to reduce pain and side effects.
Davis has reviewed ProSure for medical journals.
The company has offered ProSure through mail order, the Internet and doctor's offices since July and plans to put it on the shelves of up to 10,000 drugstores nationwide by the end of June.
About 800,000 of the 1.5 million people diagnosed with cancer each year will lose significant amounts of weight, said Mark Gorman, an Abbott vice president and general manager of medical nutritionals at Ross.
Appetite stimulants typically used for cancer patients -- including medical marijuana -- are not very effective, adding fat and water instead of muscle, said Dr. Lawrence Berk, medical director of radiation oncology at Grant Medical Center.
"Now we're reversing the processes that are causing the weight loss," he said.
Ross, the Columbus-based maker of the Similac and Ensure brands, also makes supplements that meet the specific needs of patients with AIDS, kidney disease and other conditions.
Berk said patients who are losing weight will die sooner, but there's no advantage to just packing in calories.
As well as proteins, vitamins and minerals, ProSure has a type of omega-3 fatty acid, called EPA, that has helped cancer patients gain weight in clinical studies. In one experiment on rats, large doses of EPA shrank liver tumors.
"It has a lot of good science behind it," Davis said.
He wants the Cleveland hospital to do a study on the combined effects of
ProSure and chemotherapy or radiation in pancreatic cancer.

Berk is the principal investigator in a nationwide experiment for Juven, another supplement developed at the University of Iowa. It contains a combination of protein building blocks that prevent the body from breaking down muscle.

He has passed out samples of ProSure to his patients at Grant but wants more research behind it. Nonetheless, he said, supplements could be an important addition to chemotherapy and other treatments.
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in most fish, have been promoted for helping reduce the risk of heart disease.
They also help stop cancerous tumors from producing enzymes and hormones that both break down proteins and inhibit appetite, said Anne Voss, senior research scientist at Ross.
The trouble with the fat's benefits in cancer is that a patient needs to take 10 to 16 fish oil capsules daily to get enough, said Dr. William Scott Helton, chief of the division of surgery at the University of Illinois. Patients have dropped out of such studies.
"You're burping and it's terrible," Helton said. Ross somehow got rid of the fishy taste, he said. "That's a huge advance."
ProSure comes in banana, vanilla or mild orange flavors. Only one supplier can make the highly purified and deodorized form of the fish oil, derived from sardines, Voss said.
The formula is low in sugar because test groups said they didn't want a sweet taste, she said. Each 8-ounce, 300-calorie serving is low in fat so people don't feel full.
"We don't want this to replace meals," Voss said. "We want to stimulate meal intake."
The company recommends ProSure only for certain types of cancer in which the tumor puts out the weight-loss inducing chemicals, including tumors of the lung, pancreas, stomach, colon, rectum, kidney, esophagus, head and neck.
Financial analysts said the product could be good for Abbott, which has a unique ability to combine nutrition with pharmaceuticals.
"It's the kind of product I think Ross could very easily market," said Jan Wald, an analyst with A.G. Edwards and Sons Inc.
Ross sales have hovered just above $2 billion for the past three years, and earnings last year declined slightly because of costs associated with a lawsuit.
"My sense of Ross in the Abbott portfolio has been more of a cash cow than anything else," Wald said. It provides steady income the company can use to fund riskier ventures such as pharmaceutical research.
"They do want to see more growth coming out of that division," he said.
If clinical studies bear out the company's claims, ProSure could provide a drive to sales growth that has been missing for Ross, said Dan Lemaitre of Merrill Lynch.
If 800,000 people tried the recommended two cans daily for just one week, at a recommended retail price of $2 a can, it would mean $22.4 million in sales.
"Most people would tell you it (nutrition) is an extraordinarily profitable but slow-growing business," he said. "A product like this that could dramatically expand the market could be very, very meaningful for them."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)