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Drug trial shows improved survival for breast cancer patients

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by Cancer Research UK | News

31 May 2003

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A woman’s chances of surviving early stage breast cancer could improve by a third if she is treated with a particular combination of ¬†chemotherapy drugs, according to a Cancer Research UK trial.

Results from the largest trial of its kind in the world show that the right chemotherapy regime, which includes a drug called Epirubicin, can prevent breast cancer recurrence following surgery and reduce deaths from the disease.

The results of the British trial will be announced on the first day of the prestigious American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting in Chicago.

Researcher, Dr Chris Poole from the Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Unit at the University of Birmingham explains: “Modern chemotherapy treatments usually involve a cocktail of drugs that work together to help prevent cancer recurrence.

“Through clinical trials these combinations have been refined over the years and survival rates have gradually improved.

“This particular trial has yielded a dramatic difference in survival and it’s incredibly rare to get such a significant increase by using existing drugs in a slightly different way.”

The trial, called NEAT (National Epirubicin Adjuvant Trial), compared treatment using four rounds of Epirubicin followed by four rounds of standard chemotherapy (CMF) with six rounds of CMF alone. In both groups the drug doses were higher than those often used routinely.

Over the trial recruitment period of five years, women who were treated with Epirubicin were 31 per cent less likely to relapse or die than women treated with CMF alone.

The majority of the 40,000 new breast cancer cases diagnosed in the UK each year are treated with chemotherapy. The researchers believe that survival could be improved for hundreds, if not thousands of these women.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommended in 2002 that chemotherapy for breast cancer should include Epirubicin or a similar drug but until now there has been no definitive answer on how the drug might best be integrated into standard therapy.

The results of the national trial involving over 2,000 women gives clear direction on the best combination, dose and order for breast cancer chemotherapy.

Researcher Dr Helena Earl from the University of Cambridge explains: “Chemotherapy is an important part of treatment for many women affected by breast cancer but there has been considerable debate and uncertainty as to the best drug regime.

“This trial provides clear evidence on which drugs to use, which order to give the drugs and how much to give.

“We hope that in the future all patients will benefit from this information and gain access to the best possible chemotherapy treatments.”

Cancer Research UK’s Head of Clinical Trials, Kate Law says: “This research highlights the need for large scale trials to discover exactly which treatment is the most beneficial to patients.

“These results show that, for some patients, getting the right chemotherapy can be the key to survival.”