Terminal breast cancer could be cured with “astounding” new treatment, study claims
Scientists have developed a new way of releasing chemotherapy drugs into cancer cells, allowing the medication to reach and kill hard-to-treat tumours and bringing new hope to millions of women with terminal or metastic breast cancer.
After using the new treatment in tests on mice, the animals recovered and remained cancer-free for at least eight months – the equivalent of 24 years for a woman, which would be judged a lasting cure.
The American researchers said that even if only partly as successful in people, the new technique could transform the treatment of cancer.
“I would never want to over-promise to the thousands of patients looking for a cure, but the data is astounding,” said Mauro Ferrari, president of the Houston Methodist Research Institute in Texas.
Dr Ferrari’s area of expertise is metastatic cancer, or cancer that has spread from the breast to other parts of the body, such as the lungs, liver or bones.
While a primary tumour in a woman’s breast seldom kills, the disease becomes deadly once secondary tumours develop and spread.
In conventional chemotherapy treatments, drugs are said to have difficulty reaching tumours hidden deep in the lungs or liver. Once there, they risk being expelled by cells that have become resistant to treatment.
But Dr Ferrari came up with a unique method of bypassing these defences, potentially curing metastatic cancer.
He has taken doxorubicin, a widely-used chemotherapy drug, and packed it in microscopic discs made of silicon, which hide the drug from the cancer, allowing it to pass undetected into its cells.
Once inside, the silicon breaks down, releasing the drug, which is in an inactive form. It then moves out of reach of the mechanisms that are poised to eject it and into the heart of cell. Once there, the drug is activated and the cell is killed.
In tests on mice with terminal disease, all the animals given conventional treatment died. But half of the creatures given the new treatment were still cancer-free after eight months, or about 24 years in human terms.
In contrast, a woman whose breast cancer has spread to her lungs can normally expect to live for between six and 24 months using conventional treatment.
Dr Ferrari says that in future, women with metastatic breast cancer could be given an injection of billions of drug-filled silicon discs into their arms. This would home in on and destroy the tumours.
Ferrari, who hopes to test the treatment on women for the first time next year, said: “If this research bears out in humans and we see even a fraction of the survival time, we are still talking about dramatically extending life for many years.
“We are talking about changing the landscape of metastatic disease, so it’s no longer a death sentence.”
Writing in the journal Nature Biotechnology, Ferrari noted that although he had only tried the technique against one type of breast cancer, he is optimistic it will also work against other types of cancer.
Experts have nevertheless cautioned that what works in the laboratory doesn’t always achieve similar success in practice and indicate that further research is needed.
Baroness Delyth Morgan, Chief Executive at Breast Cancer Now, said: “While the results look promising in mice, there is still a long way to go before we will know if this technique could be an effective treatment for women.
“We must find ways to stop the disease in its tracks and we’re keen to see the results once this technique is trialled in patients.”