Nightly News   |  October 05, 2011

Safer way to use breast cancer drug

The effective breast cancer drug Herceptin can be administered in a way that greatly reduces one of its most serious side effects, a risk of heart damage, according to a recent study. NBC’s Robert Bazell reports.

Share This:

This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: As we've said, the health news tonight amounts to encouraging news about breast cancer treatment . New research shows that the very effective breast cancer drug called Herceptin can be given to patients in a way that greatly reduces one of its most serious side effects. The story tonight from our chief science correspondent Robert Bazell .

ROBERT BAZELL reporting: When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 , Rebecca Friedman got an additional scary piece of news.

Ms. REBECCA FRIEDMAN: It was HER-2 positive, which I had certainly not heard of before.

BAZELL: But she soon learned that HER-2 cancers have a certain protein on their cells which can make them more aggressive. She was especially concerned because her daughter Hannah was just a baby.

Ms. FRIEDMAN: Good job. She was too little to really understand what was going on, but she was very supportive of me in her own way.

BAZELL: A drug called Herceptin targets the HER-2 protein and can be very effective. But the way it is given, with a chemotherapy agent called Adriamycin , increases the risk of heart failure . The study out today in which Friedman volunteers shows that if doctors combined Herceptin with a different chemotherapy, Carbop1atin , the risk of heart failure drops more than fivefold, while overall measures of heart function improve.

Dr. DENNIS SLAMON (UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center): We can do away with the one major problem that the Herceptin drug has when it's used with Adriamycin , which is increased heart toxicity.

BAZELL: But there is one drawback. The women getting the new combination had slightly more cancer recurrences. The increase is not statistically significant, but it is enough for many doctors to say they will not immediately change the drugs they give to all patients. What does it mean for you in your practice?

Dr. HALLE MOORE (Cleveland Clinic): In our everyday practice, it really means that we have another option without increasing the risk for some of these very serious long-term complications.

Dr. SLAMON: All right. Well, this is exciting.

BAZELL: And experts agree that more options are needed for the 200,000 women a year like Rebecca Friedman diagnosed with breast cancer .

Ms. FRIEDMAN: Make it right-side up.

BAZELL: Robert Bazell , NBC News, New York.