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Breast cancer discovery is year's 'biggest news'

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One of the most exciting developments in cancer this year, experts say, was the news that certain patients with early-stage breast cancer can cut their risk of relapse in half by taking the drug Herceptin.

"Hands down, Herceptin is the biggest news of the year," says Linda Vahdat, head of the breast cancer program at Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

Herceptin works by turning off growth signals in tumors that make lots of the HER-2 protein. About 25% to 30% of the more than 211,000 breast cancer patients diagnosed each year have this type of tumor. Among these patients, combining Herceptin with chemotherapy also reduced the risk of death by one-third, according to research presented in May at the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

After three years, 94.3% of women who took the Herceptin combination were alive compared with 91.7% of those who got chemo alone, according to an article in The New England Journal of Medicine. Reducing the risk of death that much in only three years is extraordinary, Vahdat says. It usually takes five to 10 years to see any difference in survival. "To see a magnitude of benefit so early on is tremendous," she says.

Medical advances have helped women with breast cancer live an average of 15 years after diagnosis, according to an analysis published in May in Lancet.

Patients who took Herceptin had a higher risk of heart failure. Herceptin has been used since 1998 to treat advanced cancers.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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