Scientists have discovered that by using a combination of two drugs, they can dramatically reduce the size of breast tumours in just 11 days.
The findings were reported in the European Breast Cancer Conference, and the results meant that some women who were previously suffering, now no longer required chemotherapy.
The findings were a surprise to the doctors testing the drugs, as they were actually examining the window between drug efficacy from when a tumour was diagnosed to when it was operated on.
But by the time they had decided to operate, the tumour had disappeared.
The drugs were tested on 257 women to target a specific protein called HER2 which in some women, fuels growth of the breast cancers.
The study was carried out at NHS hospitals in Manchester, and looked at the treatment of the drug combination to women who had tumours measuring between 1 and 3cm.
After around 11 days, the tumours had disappeared in 11% of the women, with a further 17% reducing to less than 5mm.
Trial co-leader Prof Judith Bliss, director of the clinical trials and statistics unit at the Institute of Cancer Research, London, said: “It was unexpected to see quite such dramatic responses to the trastuzumab and lapatinib within 11 days.
She told the BBC News website: “We were particularly surprised by these findings as this was a short-term trial.
“It became apparent some had a complete response. It’s absolutely intriguing, it is so fast.”
In the UK over 50,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. Around 10% to 15% of these cases are HER2 positive breast cancer. From these numbers, approximately 11,500 women die from the disease every year.
The traditional treatment for breast cancer, where the patient tests positive for the HER2 cell, is surgery, then chemotherapy and Herceptin.
Following these results, it is possible that women with the HER2 cancer may not require chemotherapy after all.
Prof Bliss did add a word of caution however, as the study was very small and the findings would require much more study. She also warned that the HER2 cell cancers have a much higher risk of returning.
“We would have to be very clear we’re not taking a backwards step and increasing the risk of relapse,” Prof Bliss added.
However, others in the medical field remain positive about the findings:
Baroness Delyth Morgan, the chief executive at Breast Cancer Now, said: “We hope this particularly impressive combination trial will serve as a stepping stone to an era of more personalised treatment for HER2 positive breast cancer.
“Such a rapid response to treatment could soon give doctors the unprecedented ability to identify women responding so well that they would not need gruelling chemotherapy.”
These days, scientists view breast cancer in a very different way even to a few years ago. The disease is thought of as ten completely separate ailments, each one being caused by different factors, having differing life expectancies and therefore, requiring vastly different treatments.
Tailoring a bespoke treatment to each one of these diseases is the way forward to offering a better treatment plan.
Prof Arnie Purushotham, from Cancer Research UK which funded the study, said: “These results are very promising if they stand up in the long run, and could be the starting step of finding a new way to treat HER2 positive breast cancers.”
Prof Nigel Bundred, from the University of Manchester and the University Hospital of South Manchester NHS foundation trust, who presented the data, said: “This offers the opportunity to tailor treatment for each individual woman.”
Samia al Qadhi, chief executive at Breast Cancer Care, said:
“For some HER2 positive breast cancer patients the effect of this drug combination will be amazing and mean they can avoid chemotherapy and its gruelling side effects completely.
“For others, their tumours may not shrink, but doctors will know either way very quickly, giving them the ability to rapidly decide on further treatment.
“Although an early study, this has game changing potential. Yet before this can be made available we need to see more evidence.
“Particularly because, at present, trastuzumab’s (Herceptin) licensing means it is only available to be used alongside chemotherapy and not alone. All cancer patients deserve access to clinically effective treatments.”
Although the results have been lauded within medical circles, currently lapatinib it not yet approved and as such, is not routinely available on the NHS.