Cancer

Updated 09 December 2016

New drug combo keeps breast cancer at bay for longer

A study has shown that combining a newer medicine with a more established medicine keeps breast cancer at bay for longer periods of time.

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In women with a certain form of tough-to-treat breast cancer, treatment with a combination of two drugs appeared to keep the cancer at bay longer – from about five months to 10, a new study says.

Offering patients some hope

The cancer is known as "advanced hormone receptor positive, HER 2 negative" breast cancer. Women with these tumours are often given drugs called aromatase inhibitors, which work by reducing oestrogen in the body and slowing the growth of the cancer.

However, patients commonly develop resistance to aromatase inhibitor drugs, and they stop working. This is also known as endocrine therapy resistance.

The new research may offer these patients some hope, researchers said.

Read: Breast cancer vaccine possible

"Our study has shown that combining a newer medicine called everolimus [Afinitor] with a more established medicine, fulvestrant [Faslodex], has demonstrated benefit in aromatase inhibitor resistant breast cancer patients," said study leader Dr Noah Kornblum. He's an assistant professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

The study, which was funded by Novartis (maker of Afinitor), included 130 postmenopausal women with breast cancer that had spread. Their average age was 61. All had developed resistance to aromatase inhibitors.

For the study, all the women were taking the drug fulvestrant. Half were also given a placebo; the other half were also given everolimus. The researchers think the everolimus-fulvestrant combination may work by helping to restore sensitivity to a pathway known to be malfunctioning when endocrine therapy resistance occurs. The combination is not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, Kornblum noted.

Side effects more common

On average, cancer didn't come back in the women on the new regimen for 10 months. But for those taking fulvestrant and a placebo, cancer returned in an average of five months, the study found.

Side effects were more common in the group taking the new drug combo, however. Those women reported more fatigue, high blood sugar and mouth sores.

Read: New drug may slow advanced breast cancer

Kornblum could not say at this point what the cost might be for the new regimen.

Dr Joanne Mortimer is the director of Women's Cancer Programmes at City of Hope Cancer Center in Duarte, California. She said the findings suggest the new combination can help keep cancer away longer.

"This is one more study that shows you can control the cancer longer by adding another drug,'' Mortimer said.

"If you control the cancer for longer that means their symptoms are under control for a longer time," she said.

However, that benefit must be balanced with the side effects, Mortimer said.

Kornblum said more study of this drug combination is needed with a larger group of women.

The study was scheduled to be presented at the 2016 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium. Research presented at medical meetings are viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

Read more:

Vitamin D levels may affect breast cancer survival

Warning of explosion in cancer deaths among women

Breast reconstruction asap after mastectomy lowers anxiety

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