Breast cancer tumours killed in 11 days with ‘staggering’ new therapy
Experts hail findings as ‘astonishing’ and suggest results of trial for one of most aggressive forms of breast cancer could revolutionize future treatment
A “staggering” new breast cancer therapy has destroyed deadly tumours in just 11 days, trials have shown.
Experts hailed the findings as “astonishing” and said it is the first time a drug for the disease has ever shown such a response.
They suggested the results of the trial, in women with one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer, could revolutionise future treatment of other types of disease.
The combined drug therapy – which would cost around £1,500 for treatment – entirely destroyed tumours as large as 3cm.
The findings mean that in future, thousands of women might be spared grueling rounds of chemotherapy that normally follow surgery, experts said.
The UK study involved women suffering from one of the most aggressive types of breast cancer – HER2 positive – who were given a combination of two targeted drugs.
Almost nine in 10 women showed some response to the treatment – meaning the number of cancer cells began to fall. In one in four cases, the powerful cocktail saw tumours shrink significantly, and in some cases totally vanish.
The drug was shown to be effective even in cases where disease had spread to the lymph nodes, the study, presented at the European Breast Cancer Conference in Amsterdam, found.
Researchers said those taking part in the trial were left astounded at the “mind-blowing” effect of combining two drugs – Herceptin, the current standard treatment for such cases, with a second drug called Tyverb.
They said the breakthrough could radically change future treatment of breast cancer, as treatment with high-cost drugs for less than a fortnight was “dirt cheap”.
Lead researcher Professor Nigel Bundred, professor of surgical oncology at the University of Manchester, said: “For solid tumours to disappear in 11 days is unheard of. These are mind-boggling results.”
Around 10,000 women a year who are diagnosed with breast cancer are HER2 positive, which means the disease ends to grow more quickly.In recent years, they have been prescribed the drug Herceptin, usually for about 12 months, with costs amounting to around £20,000.
The second drug, Tyverb, has shown some promise, but has been rejected by NHS rationing bodies for not being cost-effective, at £27,000 a year.
The study of 257 cancer patients by the University of Manchester and The University Hospital of South Manchester NHS Foundation trust examined what happened when women were given both drugs together.
Scientists wanted to test the new combination therapy on tumours, to measure how effective it was at killing cancer cells. After 11 days, surgeons operated.
But medics were shocked to learn that in many cases, the cancerous growths had either disappeared, or shrunk significantly. Normally, it takes a matter of months or even years for tumours to respond to treatment.The vast majority of the patients had shown some response to the treatment by the time their operations were due. In total, 87 per cent underwent biological changes that suggested the number of cancer cells had fallen.
Scientists said they were most excited about a sub-group of 27 per cent of patients, who “responded exquisitely well” to the treatment, Prof Bundred, a cancer surgeon, said.
In 11 per cent of cases, the tumours had disappeared entirely, less than two weeks after they had been diagnosed. In a further 17 per cent of patients, the tumours had become so small they were classed as “minimal residual disease” – less than 5mm.
Prof Bundred said: “We are pretty certain that we are not only getting tumour disappearance – we are getting an immune response as well.”
“These results are so staggering that I suspect that we will have to run another trial to prove that they are generalisable”.
Fellow researcher David Cameron, an oncologist at Edinburgh university, said: “It was only when the pathologist was scratching around in the lab, saying ‘Where is the tumour?’ that it became apparent that there was no tumour.”
After the first few results came through from the trial, researchers had to surgeons who were due to remove tumours that they might find little or no trace of them, they said.
Scientists said it was not yet clear how the mechanism worked, but said the combined force of the drugs appeared to block cancer cells from multiplying, killing them off and sparking an immune response.
Fellow researcher Professor Judith Bliss, of the Institute of Cancer Research in London, said: “Statisticians tend to be quite sceptical and conservative, but the potential that we can eradicate a tumour in 11 days is remarkable.”
At the moment, women with breast cancer usually have their tumour removed during surgery followed by a combination of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormonal therapies and targeted drugs such as Herceptin.
The breakthrough could spare thousands of women from gruelling rounds of chemotherapy, charities said.
It also raises the prospect of cost-effective treatment for women who have until now had limited options, and fallen victim to NHS rationing when new drugs come on the market.
Although the drugs are relatively expensive, the length of treatment would be so short that the costs would be small. Tyverb is also close to the end of its patent, meaning the price is likely to drop.
“If you are only using it for 11 days it’s dirt cheap,” Prof Cameron said. And he said the effects demonstrated by the approach suggested similar treatments could offer hope for other types of disease.
Samia al Qadhi, chief executive at Breast Cancer Care, said: “The astonishing findings in this study show that combining these two drugs has the potential to shrink HER2 positive breast cancer in just 11 days.
“For some HER2 positive breast cancer patients the effect of this drug combination will be amazing, and mean they can avoid chemotherapy and its grueling side effects completely. For others, their tumours may not shrink, but doctors will know either way very quickly, giving them the ability to rapidly decide on further treatment.
“Although an early study, this has game changing potential,” she said.
How the new breast cancer therapy works:
Around 10,000 women a year are diagnosed with HER2 positive breast cancer – one of the most aggressive forms of the disease.
The cancer cells have a high number of receptors for the human epidermal growth factor (HER2) which stimulate the cells to divide and grow.
The new trial involved 257 women who had just received a diagnosis, and were due to have surgery within a fortnight to remove deadly tumours, before starting chemotherapy.
Scientists wanted to test the new combination therapy on tumours, to measure how effective it was at killing cancer cells.
They had no idea it would prove so potent that some of the growths would be destroyed even before surgery went ahead.
The study divided women into three groups:
- Some received no treatment before their operation – as is normally the case.
- Others were given the drug Herceptin, which is usually given for a year after surgery.
- A third group were given Herceptin, combined with a newer drug called Tyverb.
The study, funded by Cancer Research UK, found that among 66 women given the combination therapy, 87 per cent had some kind of immediate biological response.
This was shown by a drop in proteins which indicate cells are growing and dividing, or a rise in cell death of at least 30 per cent. But the findings were yet more remarkable among 28 per cent of women in the group.
In total, 11 per cent of those given the drug combination saw tumours entirely vanish, in less than a fortnight. A further 17 per cent had tumours shrunk to less than 5mm – a growth so small it is classed as “minimal residual disease”.
Scientists said they did not know what mechanism had caused the drug cocktail to be so effective.
But they speculated that the treatment had blocked cancer cells from multiplying, killing them off and sparking an immune response in the body.