Pancreatic cancer, which took the life of actor Patrick Swayze last week, is a particularly intractable form of the disease. And that’s one reason Abraxis BioScience Inc. believes it may have another profitable cancer treatment on its hands.

The West L.A. drug development company recently reported promising clinical trial results when its flagship Abraxane cancer drug was used in combination with a standard form of pancreatic cancer therapy.

Abraxane, which is currently approved for metastic breast cancer, contains the well-known chemotherapy agent paclitaxel, but uses an innovative nanotechnology delivery system that gets more of the agent into cancer cells.

This summer, the company reported interim phase two data showing patients taking Abraxane in combination with pancreatic cancer drug gemcitabine had a median survival rate of more than 10 months as of May – impressive for a disease in which patients often die within six months of diagnosis.

“I consider the pancreatic cancer area (to be) really transformative for the drug and the company,” Chief Executive Lonnie Moulder recently told analysts at last month’s quarterly conference call.

Abraxis now has patients enrolled in a phase three trial that compares the Abraxane-gemcitabine combination with gemcitabine alone. If all goes well, the company will apply to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for permission to market the drug for this additional use.

Long Beach cancer researcher Dr. Robert Magourney said Abraxis’ approach holds promise but is one of several options being studied around the world. Between 25,000 to 30,000 Americans are diagnosed each year with the disease, which targets a gland that produces insulin and digestive enzymes.

“The pancreases is a strategic placed bomb when something goes wrong because it’s difficult to remove surgically … and it has all these natural defenses that make it resistant to toxic drugs,” said Magourney, director of the Todd Cancer Institute at Long Beach Memorial Hospital.

Other drug companies testing pancreatic cancer drugs include Thousand Oaks biotech giant Amgen Inc., which is expected to release its own phase two clinical trial results next year. Amgen’s approach uses monoclonal antibodies, which work with the body’s own immune system to kill cancer cells.

Kaiser Opens Hospital

Kaiser Permanente last week opened its second replacement hospital in Los Angeles County this year, a 352-bed medical center on Imperial Highway in Downey

The six-story, $390 million Kaiser Permanente Downey Medical Center will largely replace Kaiser’s 44-year-old Bellflower Medical Center about one mile to the south.

Unlike Bellflower, more than 95 percent of the new facility’s beds are private, with many equipped with pullout beds for overnight stays by family members. The new hospital also expects to attract many expectant mothers, offering 18 private labor and recovery suites, and a 49-bed advanced neonatal intensive care unit.

Kaiser this spring opened a replacement hospital for its Southern California flagship Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center. Both facilities are part of an $8 billion investment by Kaiser in the region to meet state seismic standards and modernize.

Primed for Growth

The departure of Grossman Burn Center from Sherman Oaks Hospital in the next few months will leave a hole that the San Fernando Valley facility is already working to fill.

Sherman Oaks Chief Executive John Rossfeld said Grossman was in a section of the 153-bed hospital campus that meets most state seismic standards and won’t need additional upgrades until 2030. A patient ward or other services that need to be in a safer area likely will be relocated there.

“We’re sorry to lose Grossman, but … as for their space, it does open up some possibilities for us where we would not have to spend as much money upgrading later on,” he said.

The hospital, acquired by Victorville-based Prime Healthcare Services in 2006, already had plans to restore and add services before the internationally renowned burn center announced last month that it would move to West Hills Hospital & Medical Center.

The Sherman Oaks hospital recently reopened a 19-bed geriatric psychiatric facility, which was being shut down by the hospital’s previous owners when Prime took over.

The hospital also just added a cardiac catheterization laboratory, which Rossfield said will enable the hospital to provide a higher level of service to heart patients admitted through the hospital’s emergency department – a key part of Prime’s business model.

Staff reporter Deborah Crowe can be reached or at (323) 549-5225, ext. 232.

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