Nightly News   |  June 03, 2012

Breast cancer’s magic bullet?

Studies show that the new breast cancer drug T-DM1 appears to be more effective than standard treatment. NBC’s Robert Bazell reports.

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

LESTER HOLT, anchor: We're back now with big news in the fight against breast cancer coming out of a major cancer conference this weekend in Chicago . More than 40,000 doctors meeting to discuss new breakthroughs. Tonight, we're learning about a new drug that doctors and scientists hope could help about a quarter of the 230,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer in the US each year. Our report tonight from our chief science correspondent Robert Bazell .

ROBERT BAZELL reporting: It is a new kind of drug, the so-called magic bullet that attacks a type of breast cancer while preserving quality of life.

Dr. JENNIFER LITTON (MD Anderson Cancer Center): Any time that we see a drug that can improve patient's survival improve their quality of life and have few toxicities, we get so excited about that.

Ms. FERN SAITOWITZ: Good boy.

BAZELL: Fern Saitowitz was one of almost 1,000 women in the study out today. All had advanced breast cancer of a type called HER2 -positive that is especially aggressive. The standard treatment is a custom-made antibody called Herceptin that attaches to the cancer cell , but must be combined with regular chemotherapy. The new drug called T-DM1 links the Herceptin antibody with a powerful toxin. The antibody travels through the bloodstream and attaches to the cancer cells , delivering the poison directly, sparing the healthy cells and eliminating the need for additional chemotherapy. After two years, 65.4 percent of the women on T-DM1 were alive compared to 47.5 percent of those on the standard treatment . The doctors at the convention here in Chicago are impressed enough with those results that they expect they're likely to get much better when the drug is given to women with much less advanced breast cancer . And because the toxin only goes into the cancer, the side effects are relatively mild compared to the standard chemotherapy.

Ms. SAITOWITZ: I don't feel sick, my insides don't feel raw, my fingernails are not turning black and I'm not losing my fingernails. And I 'm able to live a very normal life . Wow. Give me five. Give me five.

BAZELL: Dr. Kimberly Blackwell was the head researcher.

Dr. KIMBERLY BLACKWELL: And so for 20 years we thought about this idea of if we could just kill cancer cells without hurting the patient faced with cancer.

BAZELL: And experiments are under way to find other so-called magic bullets for breast and many kinds of cancer. Robert Bazell , NBC News, Chicago .