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Breast Cancer Drug Cuts Recurrence in Half

Herceptin Findings Give New Hope for Most Aggressive Cancers

Not Priceless

"This is a highly effective treatment, but it comes at a price," Zujewski says. "Women with HER-2 positive tumors that are also lymph-node positive should definitely talk to their doctors about getting on this drug. But we don't have the data yet to say that about women with lymph-node negative tumors."

About 211,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the United States. Genentech officials estimate that up to 25% of these women could benefit from taking Herceptin following surgery.

The analysis that led to the halting of the two trials was based on results from 3,300 women enrolled in the two studies starting in 2000. Complete findings from the trials will be presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Orlando, Fla., next month.

Perez told WebMD that at the four-year follow-up, 85% of the women treated with Herceptin and chemotherapy were alive with no breast cancer recurrence, compared to 67% of women treated with chemotherapy alone.

Good Prognosis

University of Kentucky professor of oncology Edward Romond, MD, who led the second study, says Herceptin dramatically reduced the risk associated with HER-2 positive tumors.

"For women with this type of aggressive breast cancer, the addition of [Herceptin] to chemotherapy appeared to virtually reverse prognosis from unfavorable to good," he says in a news release.

That is the best news that study participant Darlene Nipper has had in a long time.

Nipper, who is now 40, was diagnosed with HER-2 positive breast cancer that had spread to the lymph nodes two years ago. She says she understood the seriousness of the diagnosis at the time and considered Herceptin her only hope.

"We really didn't know if it would have any effect at all, but I knew there really wasn't anything else out there for me," she says.

The Washington, D.C., consultant, who is a former executive director for Black Education Television, says that while there was great promise surrounding the targeted therapy, she didn't understand how effective Herceptin really was until federal officials made their announcement this week.

"I am just beginning to realize what an emotional roller coaster I have been on," she tells WebMD. "Even though I am a so-called survivor of breast cancer, there is always that thought in the back of your mind that the potential for recurrence is great."

More Excitement to Come

Nipper says the news has made her more hopeful about her future and the future of other breast cancer patients.

"The idea that you can identify a specific genetic marker and target it ... that sounds like something we used to read in sci-fi books," she says. "I don't think the public fully appreciates yet how incredible this is and how exciting it is for the future."

Zujewski agrees, adding that the Herceptin trials represent the turning of a corner in the development of targeted breast cancer treatments.

"I suspect that the next 10 years are going to be a lot more exciting than the last 10 years, and the last 10 years were pretty exciting," she says.

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