Metastatic Breast Cancer: Hope on the Horizon?

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Metastasis is a word none of us likes to hear. Metastatic is what we don’t want our cancer to turn into. Metastases–the dreaded “mets”–is what we don’t want to have.

    Sadly, many of us are familiar with metastasis–the process of breast cancer cells leaving your breast, setting up shop in another part of your body, and starting their evil work again. Often metastasis is what’s happened when you’re diagnosed with bone cancer, or brain cancer, or lung cancer–it’s breast cancer that’s traveled to a new location. Metastasis elevates you to the next level of danger–and that’s not good.

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    Now, two new drug therapies are on the horizon: one close to being approved, one farther off. Neither is a cure, but both appear to extend life. In addition, a new study shows that survival length for women with metastatic breast cancer improved by about 30% between 1991 and 2001. And that can only be good news for women looking at their life in terms of weeks or days, not years. Women who are desperately trying to hang on till a cure is found.

    First, the study. Published in the Sept. 1 issue of Cancer, a journal of the American Cancer Society, it’s the first to show that women with metastatic breast cancer are realizing significant improval in their survival times since 1991, and especially since 1997. While there’s no definitive proof that this survival is due to new drug therapies, scientists believe that further studies will bear it out. Key drugs that came onto the market in the 1990s include aromatase inhibitors (Arimidex, Femara, and Aromasin); docetaxel (Taxotere), and trastuzumab (Herceptin). It appears they’re doing their job very well.

    Next, the two new drugs. Avastin, a product of Genentech (which also markets Herceptin), has been FDA-approved for lung cancer and colorectal cancer, and is being tested in over 300 clinical trials worldwide for more than 20 types of tumors. It’s a cutting-edge drug known as an antiangiogenesis medication: it works by cutting off the blood supply to cancer cells, thus starving tumors. In breast cancer clinical trials, when combined with Taxol, it’s been shown to improve survival times in women with advanced breast cancer by 50%. Based on the success of those trials, Genentech submitted Avastin to the FDA for approval August 24. Hopefully it’ll make its way through the process quickly.

    Another drug that demonstrates a promising new ability to stimulate the body’s immune system against cancer isn’t nearly as close to being approved. A very small clinical trial involving Neuvenge taken by women with HER2-receptive breast cancer showed that it stabilized or shrank tumors in 22% of the women taking it. Results were published Aug. 20 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. The trial actually took place 3 1/2 years ago, but the drug’s creator, the Dendreon Corporation, didn’t have the money to fund the next round of trials. Thus the drug has languished since March 2004.


    “It’s a good example of a great drug that a company didn’t invest in fast enough,” noted David Miller, president of Biotech Stock Research in Seattle. David Urdal, Dendreon’s chief scientific officer, said that the company’s first priority right now is getting FDA approval for its prostate cancer drug, Provenge, which works similarly to Neuvenge. Good news for prostate cancer sufferers; not so good for those of us with metastatic breast cancer, who’ll play the waiting game while Dendreon tries to raise the necessary capital to bring Neuvenge to the market.

Published On: August 29, 2007