A new ‘magic bullet’ drug to be unveiled today will offer hope for thousands of women suffering one of the most deadly forms of breast cancer.
The medicine, aimed at an aggressive form of the disease, is expected to offer several months of quality ‘extra’ life and drastically cuts the debilitating side effects of traditional therapy.
It could be available in Britain within a year, provided it passes regulatory checks. But experts predict that a clamour for the drug, codenamed ‘T-DM1’, will put added financial pressure on the NHS.
Dr Eliot Sims of King George Hospital, Ilford, in Essex, who was part of a trial of the drug, said: ‘Is the emergence of T-DM1 going to cause funding problems? You bet it will.’
The clinical consultant oncologist added: ‘It’s been the holy grail of oncology to find magic bullets – treatments which attack breast cancer without causing side effects. This is a huge breakthrough, and it is unusual to see such dramatic improvements.’
Pharmaceutical giant Roche is due to present the results of its latest major trial of the drug.
In earlier trials, patients found that remission time was on average five months longer when given the drug as ‘first-line’ treatment at an early stage of the incurable advanced HER2-positive form of the disease.
The latest study involved women suffering from HER2-positive who had already been treated with Herceptin, but whose cancer had spread elsewhere. In those cases remission was extended ‘significantly’.
There are also fewer side effects with the drug. Fewer than five per cent of the women given T-DM1 in the earlier study lost their hair, compared with 65 per cent in the control group using traditional chemotherapy.
Other side effects such as diarrhoea were also reduced. And half as many of the most serious side effects, requiring hospitalisation, were reported among those given the drug.
T-DM1 teams up the Herceptin antibody with a powerful chemotherapy agent DM1. The two are fused in a way that is more effective.
DM1 chemotherapy was used in the Eighties but was withdrawn because it was too toxic for healthy cells.
But the new drug combination seeks out and attaches itself to cancerous cells, switching off the growth signals that encourage cancer to spread, while calling on the body’s immune system to attack and remove it.
The drug then penetrates the cell’s outer layer and delivers the chemotherapy directly inside the cell to destroy it from within.
Once the drug is licensed, it will be up to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) to decide whether T-DM1 – the cost of which is not yet calculated – can be used on the NHS. But Dr Sims warned: ‘Herceptin costs £20,000 a year. The Government’s Cancer Drugs Fund is there to pay for drugs before NICE approve them, but this will put enormous pressure on it.’
Dr Caitlin Palframan, of Breakthrough Breast Cancer, welcomed the new development. ‘For women, the side effects of chemotherapy can be severe,’ she said.
‘There’s no cure for metastatic [spreading] breast cancer, so we’re looking for things to delay progression or alleviate symptoms.’
Pippa Bannister, 42, who has HER2 and is now in remission, was happy to hear of the drug. The mother of three, from Great Missenden, in Buckinghamshire, said: ‘Anything that offers a more targeted approach than chemo, which kills everything dead, is to be welcomed.’
A NICE spokesman said last night: ‘We comment only on licensed drugs.’