A new test has just been approved for general use in the UK that could spare thousands of women from having to undergo unnecessary chemotherapy following breast cancer surgery.
Called the Oncotype DX, the test will be used to examine tumors removed during surgery to discover whether the cancer is likely to have spread to different parts of the body.
Scientists can discern this because there are around 21 genetic markers and changes in cells that can betray whether a breast cancer tumor is likely to spread or regrow. If the tumor shows little sign of having the potential to spread, the patient might be spared grueling rounds of chemotherapy in favor of a lower impact hormonal treatment.
While unfortunately still a necessary treatment in many cases, chemotherapy medications are harmful to the body. Chemo cannot distinguish between fast growing cancer cells and other types of fast growing cells such as those associated with skin and hair renewal and those found in the stomach. As such, it can have a toxic impact on the body, making patients tired, sick, and weak as it breaks down even normal healthy tissue.
Obviously, being spared chemotherapy if there’s a chance it isn’t needed will be advantageous not just to a patient’s physical health but also to her well-being and psychological recovery.
Due to the fact that not all breast cancers are the same, though, this test will only be appropriate for patients with certain types of breast cancer: those who have what is termed early stage breast cancer which is estrogen receptor positive, lymph node negative, or what is called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 negative.
In total, this could mean that around 9,700 women of the 50,000 in the UK that will be diagnosed with breast cancer could benefit.
The trials that led this genetic test to being approved have been extensive. It’s reported that more than 6,000 patients worldwide have allowed themselves to be tested across 15 different trial sets. Doctors in roughly a third of cases changed their treatment plans as a result of these tests, with many encouraging outcomes.
This test will now be offered by the UK’s National Health Service as part of its cancer treatment plans. At the same time, this week, two other genetic tests were not approved for general use due to insufficient evidence of their effectiveness — thus showing that this is still a work in progress.
Still, Professor Peter Johnson of Cancer Research UK is quoted as saying such tests represent an important advance in science that has real world benefits: “We’re getting better at understanding which cancers need extra treatment, thanks to research into the molecular changes contained in individual tumors. This test is a great example of how our science can make a real difference to patients with cancer by making sure they have the treatment that is right for them.”
This is part of a new wave of what is being termed precision medicine that could vastly improve the accuracy of cancer treatments and as a result greatly improve the lives of cancer patients.
For instance, genetic tests are now available to screen for the likelihood of developing different types of hereditary cancers before those cancers manifest, and post diagnosis tests are also available to determine the malignancy of not just breast cancers but lung, gastrointestinal and blood cancers.
Together all this adds up to better insight into cancer’s nature and how to eradicate it, offering new hope to cancer patients that they will have a treatment that is right for their case and not the, until now unfortunately necessary, blanket approach to cancer treatment that for many patients can be as hard to deal with as cancer surgery itself.
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