New treatments for breast cancer: Breakthroughs for patient care or just steps in the right direction?

A. Goldhirsch, A. S. Coates, M. Castiglione-Gertsch, R. D. Gelber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Three areas of clinical research in breast cancer treatment led to news breaking presentations at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting, 1998, in Los Angeles. All three subjects represent important advances in cancer medicine. Prevention: Two related drugs, tamoxifen and raloxifene, were found in placebo controlled trials to significantly reduce the incidence of breast cancer for women at increased risk of developing the disease. Patterns of relapse showed that the reduced rate of breast cancer was exclusively observed for tumors expressing estrogen receptors, while the rate of tumors classified as estrogen-receptor negative was similar for the treatment and the control groups. This may indicate that the observed reduction in breast cancer incidence is due to a treatment effect on occult disease rather than its prevention. We certainly have no adequate information on mortality prevention. Adjuvant therapies: Taxol given every three weeks for four courses following an adjuvant treatment with four courses of doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide (AC) combination was found to be superior to not adding treatment after the four courses of AC in a trial involving 3170 patients. At 22 months of median follow-up, the quoted P-values were P = 0.0077 for disease-free survival and P = 0.039 for overall survival, but these did not cross the prospectively defined interim analysis boundaries for statistical significance at the 0.05 level. The difference was observed early during follow-up, and was exclusively seen in the 40% of patients who had ER-negative primaries and, therefore, did not receive tamoxifen following chemotherapy. One may thus argue that the early difference observed was primarily due to differences in the duration of the treatment regimens in the two groups and the early entry into the trial of patients with particularly aggressive neoplasia (e.g., ER-negative primaries) who would have benefited from a longer duration treatment. Treatment of advanced disease.' The use of monoclonal antibodies to c- erb-B2 was found to induce responses in metastatic breast cancer. Patients with tumors expressing c-erb-B2 responded to weekly infusions of this biological agent It was particularly impressive that the response rate for patients receiving infusion of the monoclonal antibodies together with the cytotoxics was superior to that with chemotherapy alone in a randomized trial. It is important to note that only patients with tumors overexpressing c-erbB-2 (the overall incidence is about 20%) were tested. It must still be demonstrated that the effect of these monoclonal antibodies is indeed confined to cells overexpressing c-erbB-2. Treatment related cardiac toxicity remains a problem, and the effects of treatment in various subsets of patients need to be defined before starting investigations in the adjuvant setting, which is a clear further objective of this specific research. The significant findings from clinical research opened several new questions, which must be answered before allowing them to be employed in routine patient care.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)973-976
Number of pages4
JournalAnnals of Oncology
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - Sep 1998


  • Adjuvant paclitaxel
  • Breast cancer
  • Herceptin(TM)
  • Prevention
  • Raloxifene
  • Tamoxifen

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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