New breast cancer treatment shows promise for local patients

Oct 23, 2018

A breast cancer drug under development could prolong the lives of cancer patients locally, said Peter Bushunow at Rochester Regional Health.

Bushunow, who oversees the health provider’s clinical trials for oncology, said a study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine helped establish “the first new approach to triple-negative breast cancer in over a decade.”

A new breast-cancer treatment looks promising in a New England Journal of Medicine study, says Rochester Regional Health's director of oncology research.
Credit New England Journal of Medicine

Triple-negative breast cancer is so-called because it lacks any of the three markers that most cancer medications target.

“Patients with this kind of cancer don’t have a lot of treatment options,” Bushunow said.

The study looked at whether a drug called atezolizumab, which is already approved to treat certain lung and urinary tract cancers, is also effective at addressing triple-negative breast cancer.

The study, by researchers in four U.S. states and eight other countries, found that the drug extended the lives of triple-negative patients. It “basically doubled the expected survival” for the patients in the study, said Bushunow, who was not affiliated with the research.

The drug works by recognizing what Bushunow called the "fake ID tags" used by triple-negative cancer cells to evade the body's natural defenses. "They look like they're supposed to be there," he said. Once the fake IDs are exposed, Bushunow said, the body can attack the cancer cells.

The cancer is still likely to grow, but the new treatment buys some time, said Bushunow.

The only mainstream treatment for triple-negative breast cancer had been chemotherapy, Bushunow said, but that’s usually only effective for about five months.

The drug is FDA-approved to treat some other types of cancer, but still requires a waiver from federal regulators to be used in treating triple-negative breast cancer. Bushunow said promising findings published in a prestigious journal would likely speed approval.

Nonetheless, Bushunow said, it's not a cure.