The Culprit is Cancer
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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.
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.
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
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
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.