Herceptin: What is it?

Herceptin is a new drug to treat breast cancer that has spread beyond the breast, among other things. Herceptin is the latest genetic engineered medication.

Herceptin works by interfering with a gene that contributes to an especially aggressive form of breast cancer in some women. This gene is called the HER2 gene. About a quarter to a third of women with breast cancer have this gene several times in their cells. The gene produces biological factors that cause cells to divide. Normally, cells divide everyday. But, cancer is the unusual, abnormal division of cells. It is a division pattern that is out of control and that encroaches on and destroys organs and their ability to function. When several copies of this gene that promotes cell division are present, it promotes abnormally fast growth rates... rates which lead to the development of cancer.

Herceptin interferes with this process. It seeks out the offending cell dividing stimulating substances that are produced by the HER2 gene and are found on the surface of cancer cells. It binds to them, and blocks their action.

Herceptin could benefit breast cancer patients in more ways than one. Not only does it hold the promise of halting but breast cancer, but it does it without the horrific side effects of traditional cancer drugs. Past generations of cancer drugs simply worked by attacking any rapidly dividing cell. This attacked the cancer cell, but also did a number on the stomach and caused hair to fall out. They also caused mouth sores and immunity to plummet. Herceptin does none of this. Fever and chills are the most common side effect so far. Also, it works on breast cancer that has spread, which is much more deadly than when it is limited to the breast. To date, the effective treatments for this are few and far between.

What is still being worked out through research is how to integrate Herceptin with existing treatments, how long to use it, and quantifying how well it works. A recent study looked at women who took Herceptin only to treat their breast cancer. Sixteen percent had slowed progression, 4% had complete remission, and 12 had partial remission. A total of 32% had improvement.

Another study looked at Herceptin combined with older treatments compared to the older treatments alone was even better. The percentage of women who had progression of their cancers stop went from 10% to 25%. The time it took to progress went from 4.6 to 7.6 months. The percentage who had a partial response went from 32% to 48%.

While that may be far from a cure, it is a tremendous improvement from the past. Before these types of breast cancer were quickly and uniformly fatal, with poor quality of life due to the side effects of treatment.

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