Mammograms can detect early breast cancer, but even when tumors are found in their earliest stages they can still be aggressive and spread. Breast cancer can be particularly challenging for patients who have tumors that overproduce the HER2 protein.
"The HER2 receptor system basically is another way that cancer cells can essentially take over the body's resources to grow and develop at a very rapid rate, and so it's another factor that contributes to an aggressive breast cancer," said Dr. Farrah Kahn, an oncologist at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington.
HER2 positive women account for 20 percent of all breast cancer patients. For nearly 15 years now, those women have been treated with Herceptin and Xeloda. Those drugs have dramatically reduced recurrence and metastatic disease-- when cancer spreads to other parts of the body. But it's not always effective.
A new drug called Kadcyla may help.
"This is a very exciting drug," Kahn said.
Approved by the Food and Drug Administration last Friday, Kadcyla combines Herceptin with another powerful toxin.
"This is basically a drug that hones in on the HER2 protein that is on the surface of the HER2 positive breast cancer cells. It glues on there and releases the chemotherapy part within the cell. So we're basically killing HER2 positive cancer cells from multiple directions," Kahn explained.
It targets tumor cells while sparing healthy ones and clinical studies showed it extends the median survival of women by six months and has fewer side effects.
"This is a wonderful drug to offer for HER2 positive women with metastatic breast cancer who, unfortunately, their cancer has progressed on previous treat with Trastuzumab and chemotherapy agents," Kahn said.
For now, Kadcyla is approved for use when traditional drugs are no longer effective and disease has spread. It's another weapon in the battle against breast cancer.
The drug's developers are already testing it as an initial treatment for advanced breast cancer, rather than as a drug of last resort.
PO Box 4508