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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 December, 2003, 03:30 GMT
Cancer drug 'could save lives'
Breast tumour
Current drugs do not always work
A drug given to women terminally ill with breast cancer can improve survival rates if given early in the disease, research suggests.

At the end of five years, nearly 90% of women given Taxotere were alive and 75% were disease free.

The findings imply the drug could be a life-saver - and should not just be given to buy extra time.

Results of the international study were presented at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in Texas.

It is the most encouraging news we have had from any of the newer chemotherapy drugs.
Professor Robert Coleman
Currently the drug does not have a licence for this earlier use, although the manufacturers, Aventis, will be applying for this.

But there is concern that the requirement to go through the lengthy approval process could mean that women are denied the drug for years.

It is already the subject of postcode prescribing across the country for its use in advanced cancer.

Big differences

The research focussed on 1,500 women with breast cancer. After surgery, half received a standard breast cancer therapy, known as FAC, and the other half treatment containing Taxotere.

At the end of the five years, 75% of the women on Taxotere were disease free, compared to 68% on the standard treatment.

Some 87% of the Taxotere group were still alive after five years, but in the standard treatment group the figure was 81%.

This meant that the Taxotere group had a 30% reduction in the risk of death compared to the standard treatment group, and a 28% reduction in the chance of their cancer returning.

The study was carried out in "high risk" women, known as node-positive.

Professor Robert Coleman, of Weston Park Hospital, Sheffield, one of the UK doctors who took part in the trial, said the results were important and potentially life-saving.

He said: "If the treatment were applied across the UK just as it was in the trial, to node-positive women, between 1,000 to 1,500 lives could be saved per year."

Professor Coleman said that an improvement in lives saved of 6% over the standard treatment was about double what was usually seen in cancer trials of new treatments.

"It is the most encouraging news we have had from any of the newer chemotherapy drugs. I think these are enormously important results."

Dr Andrew Wardley, of the Christie Hospital, Manchester, also took part in the study.

He said: "The results are important. There is a big gain by adding one new chemotherapy agent."

Long waits

However, both specialists warned that women would have to wait for the treatment, and it was difficult to predict how long it would take before it was widely used within the NHS.

Professor Coleman said: "It won't be available tomorrow. The only way women can get this treatment is in the context of other ongoing trials."

The drug costs around an extra 6,000 per woman over the cost of the current standard treatment.

Professor Coleman: "We should go to Trusts and primary care trusts now with the data and talk about funding, because you can bet your life it will be available privately."

Christine Fogg, Joint Chief Executive of Breast Cancer Care said: "We know that women with breast cancer are often anxious for new treatments that improve survival to be made available as soon as possible.

"We hope that the National Institute for Clinical Excellence will appraise this treatment promptly so that, if appropriate, it is accessible and funded for all women."

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