A new drug has been launched for women with advanced HER2-positive breast cancer who have stopped responding to trastuzumab (Herceptin).
Trastuzumab emtansine (Kadcyla) has been licensed by the European Medicines Agency for patients who have failed on conventional treatment with trastuzumab and chemotherapy.
It is only suitable for patients with the defective Her2 gene and trial results have shown it can extend life by six months compared with treatment with two other drugs, lapatinib (Tyverb) and capecitabine (Xeloda).
Trastuzumab emtansine, manufactured by Roche, is designed to penetrate cancer cells and destroy them from within and, because its action is so precise, a normally toxic form of chemotherapy can be used.
Clinical trial results have shown that women on Trastuzumab emtansine survived 30.9 months, compared with 25.1 months for patients treated with lapatinib and capecitabine. They also suffered fewer side-effects such as diarrhoea and vomiting.
Trastuzumab emtansine is an antibody-drug conjugate, which means it uses a “stable linker” to join trastuzumab and the powerful chemotherapy agent DM1 together.
This enables a two-stage attack on cancer cells. The drug blocks the growth signals that enable cancer cells to survive before releasing chemotherapy directly into the cells.
Trastuzumab emtansine is administered intravenously once every three weeks.
The drug has not yet been appraised for use on the NHS by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence or the Scottish Medicines Consortium.
Doctors can apply for treatment for suitable patients through the NHS cancer drugs fund and it is available privately.
Dr Caitlin Palframan, Breakthrough Breast Cancer’s senior policy manager, said: “This is a huge step forward. Kadcyla has been shown to extend life by up to six months in HER2-positive secondary breast cancer patients, and with more manageable side effects than alternative drugs.
“It has the potential to provide women with a better quality of life in their final months than existing treatments, which could make a significant difference.
“A thousand women die from metastatic, or secondary, breast cancer every month in the UK and this treatment has the potential to provide some of them not only with additional time, but importantly, quality time to spend with their friends and families.
“Whilst we are very pleased that this new treatment will now be made available on the cancer drugs fund throughout England, it’s important to point out that this fund is only guaranteed until 2016,” she said.
“We strongly believe that a permanent, sustainable process by which drugs like this are made available to patients across England on a long-term basis is desperately needed,” she added.
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