Do Medical Experts Have a Cure for Breast Cancer?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," October 20, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: It does not happen often, medical experts saying they may have a cure for a disease. But it’s happening now with a breast cancer (search) drug that’s not even new. Jane Skinner is here to explain. Jane?


Well, The drug is called Herceptin (search) and you may have heard of it because it has been used for years to treat advanced breast cancer. But studies involving thousands of women in the early stages of the disease show it cut their risk of relapse in half.

Today, at least one medical expert is calling it a cure, but a lot are not. So is it?

Dr. Charles Geyer is the director of Medical Breast Oncology and Allegheny General and he is one of the study’s lead authors.

Doctor, thank for being here. And congratulations to you on these studies that have got everybody so excited today. Cut through, though, the hype and headlines today, if you will, and tell us, have you got on your hands a cure for breast cancer?

DR. CHARLES GEYER, LEAD AUTHOR OF HERCEPTIN STUDY: Well, we’re cautiously optimistic that we will be curing some of the women who are being kept free of their cancer.

What we know at this point is that by using Herceptin, we’re cutting recurrences in half, as you’ve said. A third of the deaths are already prevented. And, in the past when we’ve seen these kinds of reductions early on, it holds up.

And so, we are optimistic that we are going to be curing more women with the addition of this therapy.

SKINNER: The numbers really are stunning. Tell me whom it works for. Not everybody, right?

GEYER: Correct. The tumors that this specifically works on are cancers that have a large amount of a protein called the HER-2 protein (search) on the surface of the cancer cell.

And we’ve known for years that that protein makes these cancers particularly aggressive and hard to treat, so that women receiving standard therapies sometimes were cured, but we considered them to be at highest risk for recurrence.

So, it’s very gratifying now that a drug developed to specifically attack that protein seems to have this very, very impressive effect.

SKINNER: And do these women still have to undergo chemo and radiation?

GEYER: At this point, this therapy is added to the standard treatment, which is, in women is chemotherapy, hormone therapy if they have an estrogen-fed cancer and radiation therapy if they’ve elected to get breast-conserving therapy. And so, it is an additive treatment

SKINNER: Do you envision some day that Herceptin by itself would be enough?

GEYER: Probably not by itself. The question is: Can we find several drugs that target different key proteins and cancer cells that would allow us to use a cocktail of these drugs and avoid the need for chemotherapy? I think that’s the holy grail of medical oncologists right now and encourages us that that might be possible in the future.

SKINNER: Wow, that’s incredible. This drug has been around, as we mentioned, for a while. Why now are we finding these results?

GEYER: When we set up trials in early-stage breast cancer patients, we do want to have a signal that the trials are likely to be successful to some degree and to have some idea of what the side effects might be.

So, when the studies were positive in metastatic breast cancer patients, that’s led to the FDA (search) approval. That gave us the justification to set up these trials.

And they take five to six years to complete and analyze before you learn the results.

SKINNER: All right. Well, best of luck and again, congratulations, Dr. Charles Geyer. Thank you for being here.

GEYER: Thank you.

SKINNER: And, John, some of those at risk that he had talked about were heart — congestive heart failure (search) on the part of some women who had taken it. But in some of them, they found that it ultimately reversed itself ultimately, so they know what they have.

GIBSON: Good. All right. Jane Skinner, thank you very much.

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