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Shame of a Nation
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The Man Who Knows Too Much
The Culprit is Cancer

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Fall 1998
The Culprit is Cancer
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On Friday, Slamon met Shak in the cocktail lounge of the Burbank Airport. Shak carried a briefcase full of papers and graphs, the long-awaited results from the Phase III clinical trials. The news was breathtaking. In the pivotal trial, 234 women with advanced breast cancer who were given the best available chemotherapy were compared with 235 women who received chemotherapy plus Herceptin. The addition of Herceptin boosted the effects of chemotherapy dramatically: In the group that received the experimental drug, nearly 50 percent of the women saw their cancer disappear or their tumors shrink by at least half. What's more, their cancer didn't return as quickly as might have been expected.

The study also confirmed the deadliness of the HER-2 tumors. When the chemotherapy drug Taxol, considered one of the best treatments available for breast cancer, was used alone, only 16 percent of the women saw their cancer improve. Typically, 65 percent would be expected to respond positively to the aggressive chemotherapy.

"I wasn't sure if I should laugh or cry when I saw these dramatic results," says Slamon. "I didn't anticipate the antibody would work as well as it did. I was very happy and Steve and I had several cocktails to celebrate."

At the American Society of Clinical Oncology's (ASCO) annual meeting in May, Slamon publicly announced the results of his study. Seated with four other cancer experts at a long table in a room packed with TV cameras and reporters, Slamon had dressed for the occasion in a handsome, dark-brown, double-breasted suit. He was the last scheduled to speak. As he waited, the gray-haired scientist occasionally glanced at his notes, his long fingers clutching a bottle of mineral water.

Finally, his 6-foot-2-inch frame rising slowly out of the chair, Slamon walked to the podium. With cameras clicking away, he began to tell in a steady, understated voice the story of HER-2 and Herceptin. One patient who'd taken the drug only 18 weeks had survived close to six years. Another, still taking the antibody, had lived five years. In others, the therapy slowed the spread of the disease by three months. Considering that women with this virulent form of breast cancer typically die in 18 months, sometimes less than a year, the results Slamon offered were striking.

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