A new study has encouraging news for women the aggressive Her-2 positive form of breast cancer.
The study shows that the experimental drug Tykerb combined with the chemotherapy drug Xeloda can significantly slow the growth of tumors, and reduce the risk of spreading to the brain, reports CBS Evening News Saturday anchor Thalia Assuras.
For women battling the disease the findings come not a moment too soon.
"I think it's amazing that I am here now living this kind of life," says breast cancer survivor Myrna Schoen.
Schoen was diagnosed with Her-2 positive breast cancer five years ago. She underwent chemotherapy and took Herceptin-- a smart drug that attacks cancer cells while leaving healthy ones alone.
"Herceptin is a miracle drug. It's a miracle drug." says Schoen. "Therapies really have not affected me — aside from hair loss — in a negative way."
But after a year of taking Herceptin, Schoen's doctor told her the cancer had spread to her brain.
"(It's) very shocking," says Schoen. "When you hear there's a tumor in your brain, it's different than hearing that you have a tumor in other parts of your body."
Each year, 150,000 Americans are diagnosed with metastatic brain tumors — cancer that has spread from some other part of the body to the brain.
Metastatic brain tumors show up in about 40 percent of lung cancer patients — and in up to one-third of patients with breast cancer.
"This is breast cancer that has spread to the brain, but they're living long enough so that they're developing a complication that in the past was much less common because, unfortunately, in the past, women often didn't live as long with this problem," says Dr. Eric Winer, a breast cancer specialist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Winer has been involved in testing the drug
Winer says he's seen a growing number of breast cancer patients who have taken Herceptin develop metastatic brain tumors.
"Herceptin has been an enormously effective drug for women with Her-2 positive breast cancer," he says. "The problem, though, is that Herceptin does not appear to get into the brain."
The reason? Herceptin is too large a molecule to pass through the blood-brain barrier which is designed to protect the brain from large foreign substances.
Doctors are now optimistic about the experimental drug, Tykerb which works like Herceptin by blocking the growth of the breast cancer.
But Tykerb may have some advantages over Herceptin. It's a smaller molecule and appears to penetrate the blood-brain barrier. It also has fewer side effects. And, it comes in pill form instead of being given intravenously.
Myrna Schoen's brain tumors were treated with radiation. She is now cancer-free.
"I don't expect a cure, but I treat it just like somebody would treat diabetes," Schoen says. "My feelings are you need to find out which drugs work and when one drug stops, you need to find another drug that's going to work. And that requires research."
Researchers say the Tykerb tests were so successful they ended them early.
The manufacturer hopes to begin selling the drug next year, pending regulatory approval.