Gene test may bring safe chemotherapy: Doctors hail breakthrough for breast cancer patients
01:33 GMT, 23 March 2012
Doctors have discovered a way of identifying breast cancer patients likely to suffer life-threatening side effects from chemotherapy.
Their research could eventually lead to safer treatments adapted to individual patients.
The study of almost 1,100 breast cancer patients found 17 per cent needed hospital care for potentially fatal infections after treatment with three widely used chemotherapy drugs.
Risk: Many contract serious infections after treatment with common chemotherapy drugs
But it also found 15 per cent of women in the study had a gene variant linked to the worst side effects.
Around 48,000 women in the UK develop breast cancer each year and at least 20,000 will be offered chemotherapy.
The findings will be released today at the 8th European Breast Cancer Conference (EBCC-8) in Vienna.
Lead researcher Dr Christof Vulsteke, of the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, hailed the study as an important step towards a safer, more personalised drug regime for patients.
Killer: A breast cancer cell. Around 48,000 women in the UK develop the disease each year
He said: ‘We found that genetic variation in one gene was highly correlated with chemotherapy side effects.
‘Investigating this gene before starting chemotherapy would allow us to support the patient with either growth factors to increase the patient’s immunity, or dose modifications, or a different chemotherapy regimen better adapted to the patient, or a combination of these.’
Dr Vulsteke hopes patients could benefit from a gene variant test in three to four years.
The researchers examined DNA from
blood samples from 1,089 breast cancer patients who were treated between
2000 and 2010 with the chemotherapy drugs fluorouracil, epirubicin and
patient, the variability in the genes important for metabolising the
three drugs was compared with the side effects experienced. In 15 per
cent of cases, one gene variant was important.
Patients currently receive a standard six cycles of treatment and side effects can range from minimal to severe, which are mainly caused by immune system depression. These can result in potentially life-threatening fever and infections that need immediate hospital treatment.
At present, patients have to suffer a life-threatening episode before doctors can adjust the dose or give growth factors that can halve the incidence of problems. Dr Vulsteke said a single injection of growth factor cost almost 1,000, so doctors needed to be certain they were targeting the right patients.
He added: ‘Our research has brought us one step closer towards prescribing personalised chemotherapy treatment with a minimum of side effects.’
EBCC-8 chairman Professor David Cameron, of the University of Edinburgh, said further research was needed, but the study was ‘an important step’ towards ensuring ‘the treatment is matched to the patient’.