Surprising results from two new studies may reopen debate about the value of Avastin for breast cancer. The drug helped make tumors disappear in certain women with early-stage disease, researchers found.
Avastin recently lost approval for treating advanced breast cancer, but the new studies suggest it might help women whose disease has not spread so widely. These were the first big tests of the drug for early breast cancer.
In one study, just over one third of women given Avastin plus chemotherapy for a few months before surgery had no sign of cancer in their breasts when doctors went to operate, versus 28 percent of women given chemo alone. In the other study, more than 18 percent on Avastin plus chemo had no cancer in their breasts or lymph nodes at surgery versus 15 percent of those on chemo alone.
A big caveat, though: The true test is whether Avastin improves survival, and it's too soon to know that. The drug also has serious side effects.
Avastin is still on the market for some colon, lung, kidney and brain tumors. In 2008, it won conditional U.S. approval for advanced breast cancer because it seemed to slow the disease. Further research showed it didn't meaningfully extend life and could cause heart problems, bleeding and other problems. The government revoked its approval for breast cancer in November.
Now doctors can prescribe Avastin for breast cancer but insurers may not pay. Treatment can cost $10,000 a month. The drug is made by California-based Genentech. It is still approved for treating advanced breast cancer in Europe and Japan.
Of the more than 200,000 women in the U.S. diagnosed each year with breast cancer, about 30,000 are like those in the new studies, Lyman estimated.
But the studies' impact could be far greater: The participants' tissue samples are being analyzed for genes and biomarkers to predict which women are most likely to respond to Avastin. That could lead to a relook of using the drug for certain women with advanced disease, too.