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Biological Therapy for Breast Cancer

Biological therapy for breast cancer uses the body's immune system or hormonal system to treat cancer cells. This causes less harm to healthy cells. Side effects from biological therapy aren’t as bad as from traditional treatments like chemotherapy.

One type of biological therapy uses antibodies to attack cancer cells or block them from growing. Antibodies are a part of the immune system made by special white blood cells. They can also be made in a lab and given as medicine.

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Another type of biological therapy uses drugs made of small molecules that interrupt the signals that cancer cells need to grow.

HER2-Positive Breast Cancer

One example of a man-made antibody is trastuzumab (Herceptin). Herceptin is believed to stop cancer cells from growing in three ways:

  1. It sticks to special receptors on cancer cells, stopping them from growing.
  2. It signals the body's immune system to attack cancer cells.
  3. It can improve the effectiveness of chemotherapy.

But Herceptin works only if the patient has the HER2 gene in her cancer cells. About 30% of breast cancer patients have this gene. (They are called "HER2-positive.")

Herceptin is the standard treatment for HER2-positive breast cancer, and it's used in combination with one of the drugs known as taxanes (Abraxane, Taxol, and Taxotere).

Pertuzumab (Perjeta) is another antibody used to treat HER2-positive breast cancer. It's used in combination with Herceptin and Taxotere

Another medication, ado-trastuzumab emtansine (Kadcyla), combines the antibody in Herceptin with a chemotherapy drug. It's used in patients with HER2-positive, metastatic breast cancer who were previously treated with a combination of Herceptin and a taxane.

One disadvantage of antibody treatment is that it is generally only available by injection. Small-molecule treatment can be taken in a pill.

Lapatinib (Tykerb) is an example of a small molecule drug. It's is used in combination with chemotherapy to treat some advanced cases of HER2-positive breast cancer. It’s often used when other cancer medications have been tried and weren't successful.

HER2-Negative Breast Cancer

Women who don’t have the HER2 gene are called "HER2-negative." These women need different cancer treatments than HER2-positive women.

In HER2-negative breast cancer, everolimus (Afinitor) can be taken with the drug exemestane in postmenopausal women who have already tried certain other treatments. Afinitor is for advanced cancer that's also hormone receptor-positive.  

Other types of antibodies and small molecules that are being studied to fight breast cancer include:

  • Angiogenesis inhibitors. These antibodies prevent the growth of new blood vessels, cutting off the supply of oxygen and nutrients to cancer cells.
  • Signal transduction inhibitors. These antibodies block signals inside the cancer cell that help the cells divide, stopping the cancer from growing.

Side Effects of Biological Therapy

Side effects of biological therapy include allergic reactions, trouble breathing, swelling, nausea, rashes, diarrhea, fever, chills, dizziness, and weakness. Side effects differ from one medicine to another. Talk to your doctor about the side effects to watch for. 

Recognizing a Cancer Emergency

Call your nurse or doctor about your cancer if you have:

  • A temperature greater than 100.4 F. If you have any fever and chills, tell your doctor immediately. If you can't reach your doctor, go to the emergency room.
  • New mouth sores or patches, a swollen tongue, or bleeding gums
  • A dry, burning, scratchy, or "swollen" throat
  • A cough that is new or persistent and makes mucus
  • Feeling the need to urinate more often, feeling stronger urges than usual, burning during urination, or blood in your urine
  • Heartburn, nausea, vomiting, constipation, or diarrhea that lasts longer than 2 or 3 days
  • Blood in your stools

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Angela Jain on April 07, 2014
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