The new approach, which involves giving women with early breast cancer the drugs before surgery, holds the possibility of "enhancing the number of women cured and sparing women from [costly] therapies down the road," said study head Jose Baselga, MD, PhD, chief of the division of hematology and oncology and associate director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston.
The women in the current study haven’t been followed for long enough to prove the combo extends lives. But studies in which Herceptin is given after surgery show that 88% of women with HER2-positive breast cancer are alive and free of cancer five years after treatment, he tells WebMD.
Based on the current findings, you would expect giving the combination of Herceptin and Tykerb before surgery and giving Herceptin after surgery would increase that figure to about 90%, Baselga says.
Tykerb, both alone and in combination with Herceptin, was associated with a higher rate of serious diarrhea: It affected 23% of women on Tykerb, 21% of women on the combo, and 2% of women on Herceptin alone.
There were also more serious liver function problems with Tykerb: About 13% and 9% of women in the Tykerb alone and combo groups were affected, respectively, vs. 1% in the Herceptin group.
Women taking Tykerb were also more likely to have a low white blood cell count and skin rashes. One woman taking the combination treatment died, but the cause is not yet known, according to Baselga.
The study was funded by GlaxoSmithKline, which makes Tykerb.
The findings were presented at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.
Herceptin vs. Tykerb Before Breast Cancer Surgery
Also at the meeting, German researchers reported that when given with chemotherapy, Herceptin alone beat out Tykerb alone at eradicating cancer cells in the breast and lymph nodes prior to surgery.
The study involved about 600 women with early and locally advanced cancer. Tumor cells were wiped out in 31% of women given Herceptin and 22% of those given Tykerb.