CHICAGO — Doctors have successfully dropped the first "smart bomb" on breast cancer, using a drug to deliver a toxic payload to tumor cells while leaving healthy ones alone.
In a key test involving nearly 1,000 women with very advanced disease, the experimental treatment extended by several months the time women lived without their cancer getting worse, doctors planned to report Sunday at a cancer conference in Chicago.
More importantly, the treatment seems likely to improve survival; it will take more time to know for sure. After two years, 65 percent of women who received it were still alive versus 47 percent of those in a comparison group given two standard cancer drugs.
That margin fell just short of the very strict criteria researchers set for stopping the study and declaring the new treatment a winner, and they hope the benefit becomes more clear with time. In fact, so many women on the new treatment are still alive that researchers cannot yet determine average survival for the group.
"The absolute difference is greater than one year in how long these people live," said the study's leader, Dr. Kimberly Blackwell of Duke University. "This is a major step forward."
A warning to hopeful patients: the drug is still experimental, so not available yet. Its backers hope it can reach the market within a year.
The treatment builds on Herceptin, the first gene-targeted therapy for breast cancer. It is used for about 20 percent of patients whose tumors overproduce a certain protein.
Researchers combined Herceptin with a chemotherapy so toxic that it can't be given by itself, plus a chemical to keep the two linked until they reach a cancer cell where the poison can be released to kill it.
This double weapon, called T-DM1, is the "smart bomb," although it's actually not all that smart — Herceptin isn't a homing device, just a substance that binds to breast cancer cells once it encounters them.