Thanks to a Hong Kong study, some cancer patients will be able to skip traditional chemotherapy and its side effects, and switch to a form of treatment by a drug likely to be less unpleasant yet more effective.

Asian patients are particularly likely to have the characteristics that make using the drug, called Gefitinib, beneficial.

And the European Union is one of the places that has approved Gefitinib on the basis of the Chinese University study, the first time the EU has approved an important cancer drug on the grounds of a clinical study solely performed in Asia.

The three-year study, which involved 1,217 patients, found that taking Gefitinib was more effective than conventional chemotherapy for patients at a certain stage of their cancer's development.

A Mr Mak, 51, was diagnosed as having final-phase lung cancer in August last year. Having met the criteria, he was treated with Gefitinib. Within five months his symptoms had gone.

He said his cancer had shown a dramatic decline a month after starting the treatment.
"I never had conventional chemotherapy, and can get back to my work [as a swimming pool installer] now," the non-smoker said. "And I only have a rash on my toes."

Conventional chemotherapy often comes with serious side-effects such as nausea, severe hair loss and a reduction in the effectiveness of the immune system. Gefitinib, however, works in a more targeted way. One of its few identified possible drawbacks is slight diarrhoea.

It appears also to be more effective. Gefitinib was found to be able to suppress cancer and extend the period in which it is under control from five to 10 months, when compared with conventional chemotherapy.

Mr Mak is still taking the drug to control his cancer. However, Tong Mok Shu-kam, professor of clinical oncology at Chinese University who co-ordinated the study, said: "The concept of `cure' is less mentioned these years. Instead the medical sector emphasises how to let patients co-exist with cancer, that is, to have the least in the way of symptoms and the longest survival."

The study found that Asian non-smoking patients with a specific kind of lung cancer had a better chance of being suitable for the treatment.
"The study is groundbreaking in the sense that it brings the use of Gefitinib from the second to the first line of therapy for [the] patients," he said. "It is also the first time the European Union has approved a major cancer drug on the ground of a clinical study solely performed in Asia."