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Published on 1 May 2009

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Warning over anaemia drugs risk

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European researchers have discovered that certain drugs used to treat anaemia in cancer patients can increase the risk of death.

The drugs, called erythropoiesis-stimulating agents (or ESAs), work by stimulating red blood cell production, reducing the need for transfusions and potentially improving patients’ quality of life.

However, ESAs have also been reported to increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, and could also stimulate tumour growth.

The researchers, led by Dr Julia Bohlius of the University of Bern, Switzerland, and Professor Andreas Engert from the University of Cologne, Germany, analysed data from 53 cancer trials featuring almost 14,000 patients to establish the effect of ESAs on mortality.

They conclude that the increased risk of death associated with the drugs should be balanced against their benefits in cancer patients.

Writing in The Lancet, they say: “The findings show that ESAs increase mortality in all patients with cancer, and a similar increase might exist in patients on chemotherapy.

“In clinical practice, the increased risks of death and thromboembolic events should be balanced against the benefits of treatment with ESAs, taking into account each patient’s clinical circumstances and preferences.”

They add: “More data are needed for the effect of these drugs on quality of life and tumour progression, and meta-analyses similar to this one will address these questions.”

Copyright Press Association 2009

The Lancet



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