Bone drug effective in improving breast cancer survival

In a chance finding a bone drug was found to be effective in breast cancer. While doctors were prescribing young women a medicine to keep their bones strong during breast cancer treatment they noted that after seven years it did more than that - the bone drug improved survival, as much as most chemotherapy could do.

The study found a 37 percent lower risk of death among women who received the bone drug, Zometa. In absolute terms, it meant that 4 to 5 more women out of every 100 were alive seven years later. It's especially impressive considering that the women took the drug, given as an infusion every six months, for only three years.

“The benefit persists” long after treatment ends, said study leader Dr. Michael Gnant of Austria's Medical University of Vienna. He presented the research this week at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.

Zometa should now be offered to all patients like those in this study — younger women forced into early menopause by hormone-blocking cancer treatments, some specialists said. Bone drugs called bisphosphonates — sold as Fosamax, Boniva and Actonel — have long been sold for treating osteoporosis. Those are daily pills. Zometa, made by the Swiss company Novartis AG, is given intravenously to treat cancer that has spread to the bone. “It's a new standard of care," said Dr. James Ingle, a Mayo Clinic breast specialist who had no role in the study.

Gnant reported in 2008 that it lowered the risk of a cancer recurrence in a study of 1,800 premenopausal women with early-stage breast cancer. All had surgery followed by hormone blockers, and half also received Zometa. Now, with seven years of follow-up, researchers see that Zometa not only helped keep cancer from coming back, but also improved survival. There were 33 deaths among women given the bone drug and 49 among those not treated with it.

That magnitude of benefit is comparable to many chemotherapy treatments. It is believed that because Zometa strengthens bones, it's tougher for cancer to spread there and the drug may also have direct effects against circulating cancer cells or microscopic tumors.

Zometa costs more than $1,000 in the U.S. and about half as much in Europe, though the price may drop when its U.S. patent expires in 2013. Novartis helped pay for the study and Gnant consults for the company.

“They benefitted substantially as long as they were well past menopause,” said Dr. Peter Ravdin, director of the breast cancer program at the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio, who also had no role in the research. Other studies reported at the conference this week strengthen the view that Zometa works best in women with little estrogen. A consistent picture is emerging, Ravdin said.

The cancer conference is sponsored by the American Association for Cancer Research, Baylor College of Medicine and the UT Health Science Center.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

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Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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