by Robin Andrews
Breast cancer is the most common cancer for women in both the developed and less developed world. Currently, early detection is the best way to increase survival rates in patients, and there are various treatments available designed to neutralize tumors. Despite considerable medical advances, however, over half a million women died in 2011 from breast cancer.
New research presented at the European Breast Cancer Conference in Amsterdam has revealed that a pair of drugs are able to eliminate some types of breast cancers in just 11 days. This surprising finding, which came out of a Cancer Research UK-funded trial, means that some women afflicted with breast cancer may never need to undergo chemotherapy.
The trial aimed to investigate the effects of Herceptin and Lapatinib, two drugs commonly used during one type of breast cancer treatment, following tumor-removal surgery and conventional chemotherapy. They both work by targeting a protein known as HER2, one that drives the growth of some types of breast cancers, including some particularly aggressive variants.
In this instance, 257 women with HER2-positive breast cancer were given the drug combination after being diagnosed, before surgery was due to take place. Remarkably, 11 percent of the cancers were found to have entirely disappeared within just two weeks, and a further 17 percent of cases featured dramatically shrunken tumors.
The findings were “surprising” to say the least – the results weren’t at all what the researchers expected to see.
The team were utterly taken aback that these commonplace drugs could in some cases completely cure patients of breast cancer. Breast cancers fueled by HER2 are known for being more likely to return than others, so this study, although small, is a huge boost to those currently suffering from them.
Conventional chemotherapy is known for its side effects, which although temporary can be fairly debilitating; these include hair loss, frequent vomiting, powerful fatigue and even reduced cognitive functions in some cases. A course can take several months to complete, and even then, it may not always completely cure the patient of cancer. This new discovery may mean that some breast cancer patients may not need chemotherapy or even the surgery to begin with.
Samia al Qadhi, the chief executive of Breast Cancer Care – a UK-based charity – said that although this is an early-stage study, it “has game changing potential,” according to the Guardian. She noted that “at present, Herceptin’s licensing means it is only available to be used alongside chemotherapy and not alone. All cancer patients deserve access to clinically effective treatments.”
Like all cancers, breast cancer is complicated: It’s actually thought of as a group of at least ten separate diseases, all with their own development styles and associated patient survival rates. There’s a long way to go until all ten are able to be comprehensively and rapidly cured, but until then, research like this serves to provide medical professionals with another effective weapon in their arsenal.