The combination includes two so-called magic bullet drugs plus standard chemotherapy. It helps patients with advanced HER-2 positive breast cancer — a hard-to-treat type that’s more often than not a death sentence.
“I can’t think of something that improves survival by this much. Often, we debate over changing practice for something that extends survival by a few months, so 15.7 months that is so impressive. And really that’s exactly what I see in the clinic,” says Dr. Jennifer Keating Litton of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. She was not involved in the trial.
“I can’t think of something that improves survival by this much.”
“Quite frankly, this is even becoming standard of care in the early cancers,” Litton told NBC News.
The cocktail includes two drugs made to go together by California-based Genentech. They are monoclonal antibodies — lab-engineered antibodies that home in on tumor cells. One is Herceptin, originally made to fight HER-2 breast tumors, which account for about 20 percent of breast cancer cases. The second is called pertuzumab, brand name Perjeta, and it was designed to complement Herceptin.
The third drug in the combination is the standard chemotherapy drug docetaxel.
A study of about 800 patients with advanced breast cancer, meaning the disease had spread, showed that the drug combination slowed the tumors and kept the women alive longer — on average 16 months longer — than Herceptin and docetaxel alone. The women lived on average for 56 months — nearly five years — compared to the usual lifespan of two to three years.
“We’ve never seen results like this before in HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer,” said Dr. Sandra Swain of MedStar Washington Hospital Center, who led the trial. “This unprecedented data gives patients with an aggressive disease hope to live a longer, better life.”
There are reasons to be cautious. The regimen costs about $10,000 a month and Perjeta adds to the side-effects. “You do have an increase of diarrhea and rash, and it’s expensive,” Swain said.
The findings were reported at a European cancer conference last year and are published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“This unprecedented data gives patients with an aggressive disease hope to live a longer, better life.”