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‘Miracle’ drug giving real hope in fight against breast cancer

Lisa Smyth looks at the success of Herceptin in the fight against breast cancer

Over 1,000 women from Northern Ireland have been treated with the miracle drug Herceptin — improving the life expectancy of women with advanced breast cancer and even saving the lives of those diagnosed at an earlier stage.

Northern Ireland breast cancer patients were involved in the trials which led to Herceptin becoming a standard treatment for patients with advanced breast cancer in 2002.

Four years on — following a determined battle by Northern Ireland breast cancer patient Patricia McPeake and the Belfast Telegraph’s Herceptin: Time for Action campaign — health chiefs agreed to make the revolutionary treatment available to women with early stage breast cancer as well.

And in just six years more than 1,000 women in Northern Ireland have received the drug which doctors have described as a “huge advance” in the treatment of breast cancer and have said it is saving a considerable amount of lives.

It is too early to say definitively how many lives have been saved with the drug, although clinicians have said they are confident Herceptin is helping women with advanced breast cancer live longer with a better quality of life by pushing back a relapse of the disease.

And despite this major breakthrough, scientists and doctors at Belfast’s Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre (ECMC) are continuing their efforts to improve treatments for women diagnosed with breast cancer.

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Dr Colin James, a consultant and senior lecturer in oncology at Belfast City Hospital where the ECMC is located, said: “We always want to improve on what we have got.

“The obvious goal is to cure breast cancer totally.

“We have 14 different trials going on at the moment including observational type studies and genetic based studies to treatment studies. We have also got a number of other trials in development at the moment.

“The development of Herceptin has changed the management of breast cancer but we are always looking to identify ways of treating patients better.

“The treatments are constantly evolving and there is a huge amount of research going on worldwide. Clinicians are very keen to keep up with all the developments and I think it is an integral part of any large cancer centre to be able to run clinical trials and offer that opportunity to patients.”

Dr James said when a patient is diagnosed the team at the ECMC carefully consider the treatment options to determine which is most likely to have positive results.

Much of the research being done at the ECMC is developing personalised medicine by working to identify treatments which will deliver the best results for the various sub groups of cancers in different parts of the body.

This is done by studying tumours to achieve a better understanding of their structure and examining the effects of different treatments.

“When we first meet the patient, the primary thing on our mind is what treatment they actually need and how are we going to treat them appropriately,” Dr James said.

“It depends on the nature of the cancer and whether it has spread as to what is the best treatment option available for that patient.

“Sometimes we think it is the standard treatment while another option is a clinical trial which may give an opportunity to be involved in a new way of delivering care that may or may not be better than the standard treatment.”

He added: “The survival rates for breast cancer patients after five and 10 years are improving. A number of things are behind this including breast cancer screening, early detection and better awareness, although a big factor is the improvements in treatments.”

And Dr James said patients in Northern Ireland have played an integral role and continue to contribute to the development of new innovative treatments.

“We can’t underestimate the value that these patients have made to clinical research,” he added.

“Without the patients, we wouldn’t be able to do it.

“We really rely on the goodwill and altruism of patients to go into studies and this is very clear at most conferences where the patients are the first people thanked.”

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