Breast cancer is the second most common form of diagnosed cancer for women in the United States and is capable of affecting both men and women. In recent years, increasing breast cancer awareness has resulted in higher survival rates and lower death rates associated with the condition.
Age, gender, familial history, radiation exposure, obesity and alcohol consumption are all factors that may contribute to an individual’s likelihood of developing breast cancer. Triple-negative breast cancer is a type of breast cancer that is typically more aggressive, difficult to treat, has a higher chance of recurring than other cancers and affects mostly women under 50.
Triple-negative breast cancer is characterized by three qualities: It is estrogen-receptor-negative, progesterone-receptor-negative and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2)-negative. This means that estrogen, progesterone and the HER2-neu gene, which are all typical receptors with the ability to fuel breast cancer growth, are not to be found in the tumor. Therefore, usual treatments such as hormone therapy and drugs that target the receptors are ineffective.
A new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine discovered a combination of chemotherapy and antibody medications that provided a mechanism for women’s own immune systems to fight against cancer cells. The combination therapy has demonstrated the ability to extend life up to a year.
Lead author Dr. Peter Schmid of Queen Mary University of London commented on the importance of their findings.
“This is the first time immunotherapy has worked in such a difficult to treat cancer, and is a huge step forward for these breast cancer patients,” Schmid said, according to CNN.
Dr. Larry Norton, a Memorial Sloan Kettering oncologist, agreed with Schmid.
“This is a real advance that is going to allow us to help more people. Once we get regulatory approval, I think the expectation is this will change the standard of care,” Norton said, according to CNN.
The National Breast Cancer Foundation reports that triple-negative breast cancers are not common, affecting only one in 10 individuals suffering from breast cancer. The disease has been found to affect Hispanic and African-American women as well as those with a BRCA1 gene mutation with a higher probability.
Schmid commented on why this research is important to him.
“It is particularly tragic that those affected are often young. We have desperately been looking for better treatment options,” Schmid said.
Although the disease has shown a response to chemotherapy, cancer cells can quickly develop a resistance. The resistance subsequently allows the cancer to aggressively spread throughout the body, reducing survival rates.
The use of this novel combination of medication and chemotherapy increased the survival of some women by about 10 months. Additionally, the possibility of cancer spreading was reduced by up to 40 percent.
Norton has a positive outlook on this new combination of treatments.
“This is just the beginning of using immunotherapy for breast cancer,” he said. He predicts that with the current advancements being made and the constant expansion of researchers’ knowledge, there will soon be an “explosion” of studies on cancer treatments.
The combination therapy outlined in the new study uses the immunotherapy drug atezolizumab in conjunction with chemotherapy. Atezolizumab is an antibody that serves as a marker for a cancer cell and inactivates the PD-L1 protein that prevents the immune system from attacking cancer cells.
Schmid explained that the chemotherapy helps the immune system destroy the cancer cells.
“We are using chemotherapy to tear away the tumor’s ‘immune-protective cloak,’ to expose it, enabling people’s own immune systems to get at it,” he said.
The study was conducted with 900 women, and at least half of the women who tested positive for the PD-L1 protein survived for an additional 7.5 months when placed on the combination of immunotherapy and chemotherapy.
The treatment identified in this study points in a positive direction for individuals going through breast cancer.