5 Breast Cancer Advancements That’ll Change How It’s Treated
The nearly 3 million breast cancer survivors here in America help show just how far we have come in the fight against this terrible disease. According to the American Cancer Society, mortality rates have been on the decline for the last 25 years.
Still, it’s worth noting that an additional 231,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. These patients and their families will rely heavily on advanced treatment options like targeted gene therapies in order to come out of this ordeal alive.
As it is now Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we wanted to take a look at the five most significant breakthroughs in breast cancer research that were made over this last year. These represent advancements that will help save many lives around the world!
1) A New Drug Developed for an Incurable form of Breast Cancer
News broke in February that the FDA had approved a drug called Palbociclib. This medication had been tested in combination with Letrozole in advanced stage breast cancer clinical trials. Reports showed that Palbociclib helped extend the amount of time study participants were able to live without their disease progressing.
The combination drug therapy was tested in postmenopausal women who had been diagnosed with ER-positive, HER2-negative advanced breast cancer– a treatable but otherwise incurable form of the disease.
The patients administered the drugs showed no cancer progression for an average length of 20.2 months. The control group (taking only Letrozole) experienced an average of 10.2 months without disease progression.
The new drug has been been praised by healthcare heavyweights like Dr. Cliff Hudis, chief of breast medicine service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
“It seemed to prolong the period of disease control significantly. More important is the promise it provides,” said Dr. Hudis. “Maybe with more study, the drug will actually help people live longer; that’s the big answer we’re waiting for right now.”
Dr. Hudis also likes the fact that Palbociclib is significantly less toxic than chemotherapy.
Although, this new drug “cocktail” is not without its own risks. Reported side effects include diarrhea and pulmonary embolism.
Dr. Julie Gralow, the director of breast medical oncology at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, believes this is a sign of the FDA’s new approach to drug approvals.
“The FDA approval strategy of breakthrough status and accelerated approval show the FDA’s commitment to getting promising drugs for serious diseases to patients faster,” explained Dr. Gralow.
2) Genetic Testing on Breast Cancer Tumors
Chemotherapy has been a controversial treatment, due to its harsh effects on the body and the fact that some patients just won’t respond to it.
Did you know that we can know examine a tumor’s genes in order to determine if the patient will respond to chemotherapy? It’s all thanks to the Oncotype Dx test. Researchers can now analyze 21 genes in the tumor and determine the odds of cancer recurrence (or the risk that the cancer will return after treatment). This information will tell them if an aggressive treatment like chemotherapy will work.
The test itself was developed thanks to historical data– researchers looked at old tumors. Last month, the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of the first study with data obtained from “current” patients.
The results showed that the Oncotype assay is able to accurately predict which treatments would be most effective in early stage breast cancer patients. Patients that stand nothing to gain can now be spared the debilitating effects of undergoing chemotherapy.
An accompanying editorial revealed that 1,626 women had been spared unnecessary exposure to chemotherapy thanks to this clinical trial. Traditional diagnostic standards had labeled them all as viable candidates.
“The key thing is that they identified a group of people who are normally candidates for chemotherapy but had a 99 percent freedom from metastases at five years,” explained Dr. Hudis. “What it means practically is that some proportion of people who have been recommended to get therapy for years really don’t need it.”
3) Breast Cancer Progressions Halted by Bone Strengthening Drugs
If it comes back, where do you think breast cancer is likely to recur? It’s actually not the breasts but the bones.
For years, oncologists and researchers have pondered over the potential application of a class of bone-strengthening medications called bisphosphonates. They were developed to treat osteoporosis, but could they also help prevent breast cancer?
A series of clinical trials on these drugs have shown that they can reduce the rate of breast cancer recurrence in the bone and help diminish the number of deaths in postmenopausal patients. They also will reduce the risk of fractures in these female survivors.
Some doctors, like Hudis are a little skeptical of these results however. He noted that the results have all come from middle-aged or older women, who were already candidates for bisphosphonate medication.
Younger women who are diagnosed with breast cancer should have a serious discussion with their doctor before taking something like this.
4) A Less Aggressive Chemotherapy Treatment for HER2+
Lymph node negative HER2+ breast cancer is an aggressive form of the disease that accounts for 15 to 20 percent of all cases. Patients at an early stage can be cured through a combination of chemotherapy and a drug called Trastuzumab (Herceptin). It’s effective but also a very aggressive treatment that can have devastating effects on the body.
Last year, a breast cancer clinical trial tested the effectiveness of Trastuzumab combined with a less aggressive chemotherapy drug called Taxol. This new combination proved to be just as effective with lymph node negative HER2+ breast cancer patients!
“This trial showed that we can use less aggressive chemotherapy (weekly taxol) in combination with Herceptin in lower risk Her2+ breast cancers and still get excellent outcomes,” said Dr. Gralow. “Trial designs that require less patients and are done faster like this need to be considered in the future, and trials looking at reducing toxicity for patients are also critical.”
5) Immunotherapy Goes Up Against Incurable Cancers
Women diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer don’t have many options. It’s a highly aggressive disease that tends to affect younger African American and Latino women. Researchers have also identified the BRCA1 gene mutation as a significant risk factor.
The only forms of treatment that can be deployed against this disease are:
- Invasive surgery
- Radiation therapy
These are aggressive treatments that all too often have little effect against triple negative breast cancer.
Do you know what immunotherapy is? This new form of treatment works by effectively galvanizing the patient’s immune system against the tumor. It’s this breakthrough approach that could prove most effective against this otherwise incurable disease. Some even think that immunotherapy could be used a potential cure.
A small clinical trial conducted by Johns Hopkins’ Dr. Leisha A. Emens showed that immunotherapy could halt disease progression for 24 weeks in 27 percent of study participants. These numbers may not sound that impressive, but keep in mind that this clinical trial only had 54 patients.
Hudis and his peers are very excited about the advancements we’ve seen over the last year. We are too! Which one of these do you think will have the most impact over the next few years? Let us know in the comments below.