Simple Post-Surgery Step Reduces Bladder Cancer Recurrence

May. 7, 2018
headshot of Edward M. Messing, M.D.
Edward M. Messing, M.D.

Flushing the bladder with a common chemotherapy drug immediately after surgery significantly reduces the chances of bladder cancer returning, according to a major study led by Edward M. Messing, M.D., and an international clinical trials network funded by the National Cancer Institute.

Published today by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the study notes this may be the first phase III trial in the U.S. in two decades to show a benefit from this treatment strategy. European and Canadian urologists have been using it for years, with their own clinical trial data to support the procedure.

“The real importance of this study is that we now have a readily available drug that’s fairly inexpensive, well-tolerated, and effective,” said Messing, a professor of Urology, Oncology, and Pathology at the University of Rochester Medical Center and its Wilmot Cancer Institute. “One of the biggest issues with low-grade bladder cancer is that it frequently returns. I know some patients who have to undergo four surgeries a year, and if we can cut down on these recurrences, we will save a lot of people a lot of pain, money, and time lost to recovery.”           

Messing led the clinical trials network, known as SWOG, to conduct the randomized, double-blind trial involving 406 eligible patients at 23 cancer centers. JAMA also published an editorial about the trial, noting that the investigators focused on a problem that’s meaningful to patients, and concluding that their findings have “practice-changing implications.”

Surgeons removed all cancerous tissue from study participants with a procedure known as TURBT, or transurethral resection of bladder tumor. Then, 201 or roughly half of the patients received the chemotherapy drug, gemcitabine, mixed with saline, administered via catheter to the bladder area within three hours after surgery. Gemcitabine works by blocking new DNA and killing any dividing cells. It’s used to treat several other cancers, including advanced bladder cancer, but had not been studied in this setting among low-grade cancer patients. The second group of 205 patients received saline alone.

Researchers followed all patients for four years — the time period when most bladder cancers return — seeking to discover which treatment strategy worked better. The results were clear: A 34 percent reduction in the risk of recurrence for patients receiving the gemcitabine infusion. Sixty-seven patients in the gemcitabine group, or 35 percent, experienced a recurrence, compared with 91 patients in the saline group, or 47 percent.

However, further research is needed to compare various chemotherapy agents for their effectiveness. About 80,000 Americans a year are diagnosed with bladder cancer, and the low-grade non-muscle invasive form makes up more than half of the new cases annually.

Messing is a former president of the Society of Urologic Oncology, and later this month will receive the American Urological Association (AUA) Ramon Guiteras Award, honoring 35 years of accomplishments that have improved care for patients with urologic cancers.

The trial was supported by the NCI of the National Institutes of Health under Award Numbers CA180888 and CA180819. Eli Lilly and Company also supported the work.

Messing’s SWOG study team includes: Deepak Sahasrabudhe, M.D., of University of Rochester; Cathy Tangen, DrPH, of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; Theresa Koppie of Oregon Health & Science University; David Wood Jr., MD, of Beaumont Health; Philip Mack, PhD, of UC Davis Cancer Center; Robert Svatek, MD, of UT Health San Antonio; Christopher Evans, MD, UC Davis Cancer Center; Khaled Hafez, MD, of University of Michigan; Daniel Culkin, MD, of University of Oklahoma; Timothy Brand, MD, of Madigan Army Medical Center; Lawrence Karsh, MD, of The Urology Center of Colorado; Jeffrey Holzbeierlein, MD, of University of Kansas Cancer Center; Shandra Wilson, MD, of University of Colorado; Guanming Wu, PhD, of Oregon Health & Science University; Melissa Plets, MS, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; Seth Lerner, MD, Baylor College of Medicine; Nicholas Vogelzang, MD, Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada; and Ian Thompson, Jr., MD, of CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Medical Center.

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SWOG has nearly 12,000 members in 47 states and six foreign countries who design and conduct cancer clinical trials. Founded in 1956, SWOG’s 1,300 treatment and prevention trials have led to the approval of 14 cancer drugs, changed the standard of cancer care more than 100 times, and saved more than 2 million years of human life. SWOG is funded by the National Cancer Institute and is a proud member of the NCI’s National Clinical Trials Network and the NCI Community Oncology Research Program. Learn more at