Scientists hail ‘major breakthrough’ in breast cancer treatment

Scientists say they have made a breakthrough in the way breast cancer is treated by using a targeted cancer drug, known as olaparib, after chemotherapy.

A trial, which looked at the use of olaparib at an early stage, has indicated that using the drug on women following chemotherapy has a significant effect in reducing the risk of inherited breast cancer either returning or spreading.

A total of 1,836 patients were given either olaparib, which exploits a genetic weakness in cancer cells, or a placebo for a year. Results showed that there was a 42 per cent overall drop in the risk of the cancer returning in those who were given the drug.

The trial illustrated that after an average of 2.5 years of follow-up, 85.9 per cent of patients were cancer-free. This compared to 77.1 per cent who had received a placebo.

Meanwhile, 87.5 per cent of patients treated with olaparib, who had cancer that had spread to other parts of the body, were free of the disease. This compared to 80.4 per cent who had been given a placebo and illustrated a 43 per cent overall drop in the risk of cancer spreading.

Up until now, olaparib has only been used in the treatment of advanced cancers. The study, also known as the OlympiA trial, has shown that the drug is effective at the early, “curative” stage, say researchers.

The trial was conducted by a series of partners worldwide, including London’s Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), with the results published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The ICR explained how olaparib could become a more widely used treatment option. They said it could “reduce the risk of recurrence or metastasis in women with inherited forms of high-risk early breast cancer,” which in turn “could lead to more patients being cured.”

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Professor of oncology at the ICR and OlympiA steering committee chair Andrew Tutt revealed in a statement how they were “thrilled” at the results of the trial.

He explained: “Women with early-stage breast cancer who have inherited BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations are typically diagnosed at a younger age. Up to now, there has been no treatment that specifically targets the unique biology of these cancers to reduce the rate of recurrence, beyond initial treatment such as surgery, hormone treatment, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.”

Prof Tutt also highlighted how olaparib can reduce the risk of “life-threatening recurrence and cancer spread”.  He also explained how low the risk of side effects from the drug was.

Professor Paul Workman, the ICR’s chief executive, called the discovery a “major breakthrough”.

He said: “Olaparib was the first cancer drug in the world to target inherited genetic faults. It is also now the first targeted drug to have been shown to effectively treat patients with inherited mutations and early-stage breast cancer, potentially curing some women of their disease.”

Prof Workman went on to add that he is “keen to see this new treatment be approved and made available to patients in the UK and worldwide as fast as possible.”


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