Breast Cancer Drug Cuts Recurrence in Half
Herceptin Findings Give New Hope for Most Aggressive Cancers
Normally reserved federal health officials are using phrases like "major turning point" and "lifesaving" treatment to describe a drug that cuts the risk of
> recurrence by half in women with particularly aggressive tumors.
made by Genentech Inc., a WebMD sponsor, is already approved for the treatment of breast cancers that have recurred following > in women whose tumors overproduce a protein called HER-2. Between 20% and 30% of breast cancers are HER-2 positive.
But two new federally-run studies show that Herceptin is also remarkably effective for preventing recurrences in these high-risk women. The results were so impressive that the trials were halted two years early.
Herceptin is called a targeted therapy because it works by attacking a specific target -- the HER-2 protein. It's believed this stops the cancer cells from growing and/or stimulates the body's own immune system to attack the cancer cells.
'A Major Advance'
Women treated with Herceptin along with standard chemotherapy had a 52% reduction in breast cancer recurrence, compared with women treated with chemotherapy alone.
"This is a major advance for many thousands of women with breast cancer," National Cancer Institute Director Andrew C. von Eschenbach, MD, says in a news release. "These results are one more example that we are at a major turning point in the use of targeted therapies to eliminate suffering and death from cancer."
The NCI's JoAnne Zujewski, MD, who oversees breast cancer trials for the agency, says the findings prove the drug is "truly lifesaving."
"I have been in breast cancer for 12 years and this is the most remarkable result I have seen from a single intervention," she tells WebMD.
Oncologist Edith A. Perez, MD, who led one of the two research teams, tells WebMD that the findings should immediately change clinical practice for women with HER-2 positive cancers that have spread to the lymph nodes.
Most of the women in the two trials fell into this category. A few had breast cancer that had not spread, but it is not yet clear if the benefits of the treatment outweigh the risks for these women.
Paramount among those risks is a long-recognized link to heart damage. Standard chemotherapy for breast cancer leads to heart failure less than 1% of the time. But women who received chemotherapy plus Herceptin had a 3% to 4% increased risk of heart failure.