Immunotherapy Approved For Triple-Negative Breast Cancer

Immunotherapy has done much to change the results of cancer, but up to now, it has only be effective in treating certain cancers such as lung and bladder, as well as melanoma. Recently, however, a combination of an immunotherapy drug called atezolizumab and chemotherapy (nab-paclitazel) was approved by the FDA for treating a specific kind of breast cancer. According to oncologist Jame Abrahams, MD, for some women who have breast cancer – specifically metastatic ‘triple-negative’ breast cancer – this could be an option.

“This is not for all patients; it’s for patients with metastatic breast cancer (meaning the cancer has already left the breast and spread to another part of the body) and even within metastatic breast cancer, it’s specifically for triple-negative breast cancer,” he explains.

FDA approval for a cancer that’s difficult to treat

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When the disease is categorised as triple negative, it means that the cancer tests negative for estrogen receptors, as well as progesterone receptors and excess HER2 protein. These results indicate that the cancer is of an aggressive nature, and it is not driven by these hormones or the protein. Therefore, traditional hormonal therapy medicines or medicines that HER2 protein receptors are not effective when applied. In addition, approximately 15 % of breast cancers are diagnosed as triple negative. Research indicates that this type of breast cancer tends to be diagnosed more often in women below the age of 50, while it is also more likely to be found in African-American women.

Following a research paper on the effects of atezolizumab and nab-pactlitazel – which indicated that the combination of these two drugs has the potential to reduce the spread of stage four triple negative breast cancer, thereby helping women live longer without cancer – the FDA approved this treatment. Click here to access the original article, which was published in the NEJM November last year.

How immunotherapy works

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Immunotherapy works to fight cancer by boosting the body’s immune system and natural defences. It is effective when it slows down or stops the growth of cancer cells, stops cancer from growing in other parts of the body, or when the immune system’s ability to destroy cancer cells improves. Unlike other cancer treatments – such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy, which aim to remove cancer cells – this treatment is aimed at utilising the body’s own immune response to destroy cancer cells. 

Dr. Abraham points out that important research — which can lead to more treatment options — would not be possible without people who are willing to participate in clinical trials.

“I really admire the patients who enroll in clinical trials,” he says. “Somewhere, someone said ‘yes’ to a clinical trial — and that’s the only reason that we are able to have these advancements. So, we need to continue to ask these questions and we need to continue to do clinical trials and have active engagement and participation from patients on clinical trials.”

He also mentioned that these advancements in immunotherapy has the potential to result in additional treatment options in the future, for other kinds of breast cancer as well. As clinical trials and further studies advance on the research already done, immunotherapy may well someday be applicable for more types of cancers, with positive results.