A prognosis of triple-negative breast cancer has been something no one wants to hear, as it is the most aggressive and deadly form. But if a new study is any indication, there is new hope for patients receiving this news.
The key is immunotherapy, which seems to boost survival rates. The results were recently reported in the New England Journal of Medicine and presented at the European Society for Medical Oncology 2018 Congress.
Why is triple-negative breast cancer so dangerous?
Triple-negative breast cancer gets its name because the cells lack receptors for two hormones, estrogen and progesterone, and one protein, HER2. Triple-negative breast cancer isn’t overly common, representing just 10-15 percent of diagnosed breast cancers, but it is very aggressive and deadly. Triple-negative breast cancer also affects relatively younger women, those in their 40s and 50s, so it can be even more disruptive for families with younger children. Once it develops, triple-negative breast cancer quickly becomes resistant to chemotherapy and spreads throughout the body.
Immunotherapy could be a key
Immunotherapy, a type of treatment for various medical conditions where the body’s own defenses, the immune system, are boosted to fight the infection/disease. Recently immunotherapy has shown promise as a potential cancer therapy.
The goal of this research was to explore how immunotherapy could impact success rates with triple-negative breast cancer.
This research was conducted at Queen Mary University and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, both in London, England. The study’s co-author, Professor Peter Schmid, explains the impetus for the focus of this study.
“Triple-negative breast cancer is an aggressive form of breast cancer; we have been desperately looking for better treatment options,” he says. “It is particularly tragic that those affected are often young, with many themselves having young children.”
The research tested the effectiveness of a combined immunotherapy and chemotherapy treatment for triple-negative breast cancer. The immunotherapy drug was Atezolizumab; the chemotherapeutic agent was Nab-paclitaxel. Participants were given their normal weekly chemotherapy dosage, but a Atezolizumab dose was added to the treatments every other week.
The idea of the immunotherapy drug is that it boosts responsiveness of the immune system. The chemotherapy drug “marks” the surface of the cancer cells, making them available for the boosted immune system to hunt and attack.
The combination of chemotherapy with immunotherapy proved very effective. Participants in the research had their survival extended by up to 10 months, and their risk of death or progression of the cancer dropped by 40 percent.
The research shows that by using chemotherapy to tear away the tumor’s “immune-protective cloak” the boosted immune system is then able to effectively attack the tumor cells.
“These results are a massive step forward,” Dr. Schmid notes in the study. “We are changing how triple-negative breast cancer is treated in proving for the first time that immune therapy has a substantial survival benefit.”
The study was such a success that the United Kingdom opted to instantly pursue offering this combination as a treatment approach for the National Health Service. Until those treatments are finalized as policy, patients in the UK will be offered the combination therapy with their results continuing to be included in this research.