A new treatment could offer up to ten months extra life for women with one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer, following a successful British trial.
Using a combination of immunotherapy and chemotherapy, the body’s own immune system can be tuned to attack triple-negative breast cancer, scientists found.
The research, carried out by Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) and St Bartholomew’s Hospital, also showed that the combined treatment reduced the risk of death or the cancer progressing by up to 40 per cent.
Professor Peter Schmid, a professor of cancer medicine at QMUL and the author of the trial, described the results as a “massive step forward”.
“Triple-negative breast cancer is an aggressive form of breast cancer; we have been desperately looking for better treatment options,” he said.
“It is particularly tragic that those affected are often young, with many themselves having young families.”
Triple-negative breast cancer is one of the most deadly forms of the disease and nearly one quarter of patients diagnosed will not survive for more than five years.
The standard treatment for it is chemotherapy, which most patients quickly develop resistance to. If the disease spreads to other parts of the body, survival is typically only 12 to 15 months.
But with the new treatment, researchers say that survival could be extended by up to ten months.
Prof Schmid, who is clinical director of the Breast Cancer Centre at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, explained that he new treatment will “significantly extend lives compared to the standard treatment of chemotherapy alone.”
“We are changing how triple-negative breast cancer is treated in proving for the first time that immune therapy has a substantial survival benefit,” he said.
“In a combined treatment approach, we are using chemotherapy to tear away the tumour’s ‘immune-protective cloak’ to expose it as well as enabling people’s own immune system to get at it.”
The new treatment combines the standard weekly chemotherapy with the immunotherapy medication atezolizumab which once every two weeks.
The combination works by chemotherapy “roughening up” the surface of the cancer, which enables the immune system to better recognise and therefore fight the cancer as a foreign object.
Following the results of this trial, which were published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the new treatment is now under review by health authorities who will decide whether to offer it on the NHS.
Patients at St Bartholomew’s Hospital with triple-negative breast cancer are offered immunotherapy as part of ongoing trials.
Triple negative breast cancer is more common in women under 40 and black women, according to Macmillan Cancer Support.
It is one of the rarer forms of breast cancer, with around 15 per cent of breast cancers classified as triple negative.