New research has shown that drugs normally used to strengthen bone can also be used to treat breast cancer.
The study by an international group of experts shows that a class of drugs known as bisphosphonates can reduce the number of breast cancer deaths by lowering the risk of breast cancer cells spreading for some women.
The charity Breast Cancer Now has said the results were “one of the most important findings in breast cancer treatment for a decade.”
Bisphosphonates are commonly used to treat osteoporosis and similar diseases. The so-called ‘bone-hardening’ or ‘bone-strengthening’ drugs lower calcium levels and are used to slow down or prevent bone damage.
Some women undergo bisphosphonate treatment once cancer has been detected in their bones as bisphosphonates are believed to prevent some types of cancerous cells from growing after they have spread to the bone.
By the time a breast cancer tumour is removed from a patient’s breast there is always a risk that cancerous cells have already spread. Aside from breast tissue, breast cancer cells are also known to favour residing in bone, where they can lie dormant for years.
Women affected by secondary breast cancer in the bone first notice painful aching in the affected bone, which can make mobility and sleeping difficult.
Research conducted by the Early Breast Cancer Trialists' Collaborative Group (EBCTCG) in association with Oxford University, analysed the results of treating breast cancer early with bisphosphonates.
The group studied data from 26 separate trials involving 18,766 women who were given bisphosphonates for up to five years after cancerous cells were removed from their breasts.
The findings, which Breast Cancer Now have said could potentially save 1,000 lives a year in the UK, show the drugs prevented secondary tumours from growing in bone. The study showed that over the 10 years following breast cancer diagnosis, death rates were cut by an impressive 18% due to earlier administration of the drugs. The results revealed a 28% reduction in cancers emerging in the bone – but, significantly, only in post-menopausal women.
Although these drugs are widely used to treat osteoporosis, they are not currently licensed to treat early breast cancer. Breast Cancer Now say that despite the drugs “costing less than five pence a day per patient, there’s no commercial incentive for a pharmaceutical company to license these drugs for this new use as they are out of patent and therefore less likely to turn a profit.”
It would be a huge shame if this treatment ends up not realising its full potential for the 34,000 women who could be eligible to take it each year. The NHS needs urgently to assess the benefits of these drugs and ensure they are available if needed. If they are likely to be successful they would not only help patients, but also provide a costs saving to our cash-strapped health service.
It is crucial to remember that breast cancer does not only affect younger women, as around one in three women diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK each year are aged over 70.
Paul Sankey is a Senior Medical Negligence Solicitor leading the Slater and Gordon Lawyers Clinical Negligence team in London.
Slater and Gordon Lawyers help people who have suffered from delayed or wrong diagnosis of cancer due to Medical Negligence. For a free consultation call our Medical Negligence Solicitors on freephone 0808 175 8105 or contact us online.