A breast cancer treatment development could offer patients with the most aggressive form of the disease an extra six months of life, plus reduced side effects.
In a major UK trial, doctors found the drug T-DM1 extended the lives of women with advanced HER2 positive breast cancer by 30.9 months compared with 25.1 months on other therapies. It is expected to be available in late 2013.
About one in five women with breast cancer have HER2-positive breast cancer. It occurs when they have higher than normal levels of the HER2 protein –– a protein that helps cells grow and divide.
HER2-positive breast cancer is incredibly aggressive and once it's at an advanced stage, is very difficult to treat.
The results of the international trial of 991 women were presented at the European Society for Medical Oncology's annual meeting in Vienna.
The T-DM1 treatment combines a chemotherapy agent called DM1 with a drug called Herceptin and works by penetrating the cancer cells and destroying them.
DM1 is normally too toxic for use, but when used with Herceptin, it's precise enough to kill the cells and cause few side effects.
Paul Ellis, professor of cancer medicine at King's College London told the UK's Daily Mail that T-DM1 works effectively in patients who have stopped responding to Herceptin on its own.
"Drugs used at this stage of the disease often make women feel worse, but the beauty of this treatment is that it costs women fewer side effects such as hair loss and improves their quality of life," he said.
Professor Ian Olver, chief executive officer of the Cancer Council, told ninemsn the drug is good news for HER2-positive breast cancer patients.
"It gives you a double way of killing the cells," he said.
"The clinical trials were in patients who are no longer responding to Herceptin. They've found it improves the survival over other things that can be used second-line."
Meanwhile, another group of British researchers believe a blood test that picks up breast cancer could replace mammograms in the future.
A trial is beginning at Charing Cross Hospital in London that will use a blood test to check for DNA warning signs.
Five hundred women who had shadows spotted on their mammograms will take part in the trial. The researchers plan to compare the DNA between women who were later found free of the disease with those diagnosed with breast cancer to see what DNA markers were different.
Dr Jacqui Shaw, principal investigator at Leicester University, said if they can find good markers, blood tests could be used for breast cancer detection in the next five years.
"This exciting research means we could one day have a blood test that detects the very early signs of cancer, meaning women could have an annual blood test rather than breast screening," she said.
But Professor Ian Olver warned that Australian women shouldn't get too excited about avoiding mammograms.
"It's a good piece of research to be doing but I think we will have to wait and see if it will be specific and sensitive enough to detect very early cancers," he said.
"For the moment you would recommend that women, particularly between the ages of 50 and 70, have mammograms."