Erythropoietin emerged as the biggest drug in oncology despite never having demonstrated a survival benefit in patients with cancer. Two phase III clinical trials reported more than 3 years ago that erythropoietin adversely affected cancer survival rates, due mainly to tumor progression. Despite changes to the product label for erythropoietins in 2004, clinical practice remained unchanged until recent weeks when, following reports of three new phase III studies and a phase II trial, a “black box warning” for erythropoietin products was issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Whether erythropoietin products can be considered safe when used for FDA-approved indications is currently at issue; however, addressing this question will be difficult until the mechanisms of erythropoietin-stimulated tumor progression are understood. A thorough evaluation of materials from clinical trials already completed may shed new light on how erythropoietin promotes cancer progression. Until these issues are resolved, oncologists should inform their patients of erythropoietin's potential adverse impact on cancer progression and survival.
Disclosure of potential conflicts of interest is found at the end of this article.